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A World Without Thieves
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Left: Andy Lau and Rene Liu
Upper right: Ge You
Lower right: Lee Bing-Bing
Chinese: 天下無賊  
Year: 2004  
Director: Feng Xiaogang  
  Producer: Chen Kuo-Fu Yim Yu-King, Wang Zhonglei, Liu Zhenyun
  Writer: Feng Xiaogang, Ah Lu, Lin Lisheng, Wang Gang, Zhao Benfu (original novel)
  Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Rene Liu, Ge You, Li Bingbing, Wang Baoqiang, You Yong, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Fu Biao, Fan Wei, Feng Yuan-Zhang, Xu Fan
  The Skinny: Silly commercial flourishes and blatantly unrealistic characters aside, A World Without Thieves is highly entertaining commercial stuff from director Feng Xiaogang, and well worth a watch. Andy Lau's Mandarin needs work, but who cares?
by Kozo:

Andy Lau moonlights in China for the second time this year in A World Without Thieves. Popular Mainland filmmaker Feng Xiaogang directs this entertaining adventure film that features effective style, engaging characters, workable tension, and surprisingly likable commercial sensibilities. The film dispenses uplifting messages and cheesy platitudes (somewhat of a departure for the usually satire-minded Feng Xiaogang), and getting those things across without being bombastic is a skill to be commended. Feng Xiaogang does it, and then some; a few things in A World Without Thieves could cause you to roll your eyes, but overall this is a highly entertaining motion picture that's well worth watching.

Based on a novel by Zhao Benfu, the film tells the tale of Wang Bo (Andy Lau) and Wang Li (Rene Liu), a pair of career grifters whose success at swindling is near-legendary. Wang Li's specialty seems to be the fleecing of rich horny bastards, while Wang Bo's defining characteristic—besides his unflattering Pete Rose hairdo—is special effects-enhanced sleight of hand, which allows him the ability to slice pockets and grab wallets with ease. After the two take a BMW from a married businessman who wanted to get it on with Wang Li (Wang Bo taped the attempted seduction, and presto: extortion!), the two hit an immediate career crossroads. Wang Li suddenly says she wants out of the biz, and Wang Bo is too busy counting his cash to listen. She ups the ante: no longer does she simply want out, but she wants away from Wang Bo, too. And no, Wang Bo getting a haircut isn't going to change her mind.

Enter amazingly unrealistic stock character #6: Dumbo (Wang Baoqiang), a country hick who's leaving his gig as a Buddhist temple maintenance worker and heading back to his hometown to get married. Dumbo's defining characteristic is his wide-eyed innocence, which is unfortunately backed up by loud incredulity at the possible evils of man. Dumbo is headed back home with his life's earnings, 60,000 RMB, and loudly challenges any thief to steal his money. His assumption is that man is inherently good, so there are no thieves. He must have forgotten that the word "thief" actually exists in the Chinese vocabulary, plus there are people in this universe who've actually been robbed, thus proving the existence of people who'll take your dough without asking first. Another word for those people: thieves. Dumbo serves a purpose in A World Without Thieves, but his character has so little credibility that he might as well be wearing a "kick me" sign for the majority of the running time.

To make matters worse, Dumbo is on the train with Wang Bo and Wang Li, who are still feuding over their future. However, Dumbo becomes the ultimate pawn in everyone's game. Wang Li wants to protect him from all thieves, and quickly adopts him as her "younger brother." On the other hand, Wang Bo wants to roll the kid to teach him a lesson, namely: "Thieves are everywhere, so keep your mouth shut, you dope!" Wang Li won't let him, but there are bigger problems. Legendary thief Uncle Li (Mainland megastar Ge You) is also on board the train, and has an entourage of professional thieves with him, including Number Two (You Yong), Four-Eyes (Gordon Lam), and the sexy Leaf (Lee Bing-Bing). Dumbo's cash is a pittance to Uncle Li, but the presence of Wang Li and Wang Bo piques his interest. Will Uncle Li fleece the kid? Will Wang Li and Wang Bo stop him? And will Wang Bo pretend to protect the kid, and then fleece him anyway? And will he ditch the Pete Rose haircut for a better looking 'do? Dammit, Hong Kong Cinema fans want to know!

If you're an Andy Lau fan, then you're in luck: he does ditch the crappy hair for his usual good-looking locks. Of more concern: this is a good movie. Though loaded with commercial platitudes, unrealistic characters, and some silly SFX-enhanced sleight-of-hand action, A World Without Thieves entertains for its nearly two-hour running time, and does so in a largely intelligent and efficient manner. Feng Xiaogang has a whole mess of potential cinematic landmines to deal with, but through fine casting and excellent direction, he pulls off an involving adventure-drama that should shame most people in Hong Kong who call themselves filmmakers. Feng's direction is both overdone and perfectly measured. He handles events with sometimes pronounced and even obvious flair, but he seems to innately understand when to push the audience's buttons and when to let it ride. The ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Wang Li, Wang Bo, and Uncle Li has simmering tension that builds effectively, while the emotional heart of the film—Wang Li and Wang Bo's off-and-on relationship—is handled in a remarkable manner. The two characters pull and push each other with the recognizable affection of a real-life couple, and their ultimate conflict—and the choices they make—make for a romance perfectly inserted into a commercial thriller.

It also helps that Andy Lau and Rene Liu star in the film. Lau's Mandarin needs work, but his presence as an anti-hero instantly earns credibility, and Liu is both luminous and affecting as Wang Li. Ge You exudes slimy charm as Uncle Li, and Lee Bing-Bing brings a welcome sexiness to the mix. The big problem is Wang Baoqiang, who never truly convinces as Dumbo. He's too much of gee-whiz plot device to register as a character, and you'd think a guy with that much money would bother to check it once in a while! Still, his presence can be forgiven because he spends most of his screen time with either Andy Lau or Rene Liu, meaning the audience isn't usually paying attention to him, anyway. However, his overdone innocent dope speeches are too preachy to be touching, and are mostly annoying. Also annoying is some metaphorical dialogue masquerading as tense verbal barbs, and the SFX-enhanced knife fights are more jarring than thrilling. Feng Xiaogang gets a little exaggerated with his characters' thieving prowess when grounded action could have worked just as well. Some people might find the action cool, but since nobody can clearly do what these characters are doing, the credibility meter gets taxed.

Still, the film's debits really don't seem to matter. Through a fine mixture of elements, A World Without Thieves accomplishes that magical thing called suspension of disbelief. Feng Xiaogang and company manage to neatly skirt most of their given cinema landmines to deliver an enjoyable, and even subtly touching commercial film. The biggest shame here is that A World Without Thieves is not really a Hong Kong film. Not only are the director and most of the crew from the Mainland, but even the Hong Kong Film Awards have deemed the film ineligible for their annual awards ceremony/backslapping festival. That's too bad because 2004 was only a so-so year for Hong Kong movies, and the presence of A World Without Thieves on the 2004 cinema roster would have looked pretty damn nice. What would look even nicer: finding a way to excise 6 AM, The Attractive One, or Silver Hawk from Hong Kong Cinema's 2004 roster. If they could pull that off, it would only be a good thing. (Kozo 2005)

Notes: On the Cantonese dub track, Ge You's character is voiced by Anthony Wong, and Wang Baoqiang's by Chapman To.
Awards: 24th Hong Kong Film Awards
Nomination - Best Asian Film
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Megastar / Media Asia
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital EX 5.1 / DTS-ES 6.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
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images courtesy of Media Asia Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen