NYAFF 2014 runs June 27-July 14 in New York City. Follow all of our coverage here.
Pan (Xu Zheng) just wants to go home. After a hard stretch of work — he’s a lawyer who used sleazy tactics to get his cop-killing, falcon-poaching client off — he just wants to leave this Podunk town in rural China behind and get back to Beijing. His amoral and unapologetic client, known only as Boss (Duo Bujie), claims to not have Pan’s full fee so the lawyer takes his car as collateral and heads out on what should be a simple drive across part of the Gobi desert.
Of course it ends up being anything but simple. A run-in with a pair of vindictive truckers sets in motion a chain of events that sees him running afoul of Boss’ henchman, some rest stop scam artists and eventually of Boss himself. Pan keeps moving forward in the belief that his position in society, his superior attitude and his cash-filled wallet are all he needs to thrive, but he soon discovers he’ll need more than that if he wants to survive.
No Man’s Land feels at times like a Chinese desert-set After Hours with vehicular mayhem replacing Cheech and Chong, and it’s as good as that sounds. Director Ning Hao‘s latest is an exciting and energetic romp across a gorgeous yet deadly landscape that manages both surface-level thrills and a deeper, more vicious commentary on modern-day China.
“It’s a story about animals,” Pan says in an early voice-over relating a discussion he once had on the difference, if any, between other animals and us. The film’s script (co-written by Ning, Aina Xing and Shu Ping) makes it clear that regardless of what we may want to believe that difference is slim at best. Pan has a habit of taking and getting what he wants, and he thinks that makes him better than those “less fortunate” he’s actually just one of the herd. Xu makes his slimy nature as tangible as his eventual descent into decency.
His attempt to buy gas from a remote rest stop leads to trouble when he finds their price per tank overpriced by roughly $1000. But they’re not criminals… they’re opportunistic entrepreneurs, and the cost includes time with a sweet hooker (Yu Nan) in a nearby bus. Her and her heart of gold work their way into the tale and in some ways become the catalyst for Pan’s possible evolution. She’s a key story element, but one wishes the character wouldn’t have been so helpless throughout and constantly at the whims of men.
The collection of bad guys — an admitted misnomer seeing all the guys here are bad to one degree or another — are a motley crew worthy of inclusion in a Coen Brothers crime flick, and both the performers and film do a fine job of showing them as inevitable parts of a system that values money over all else. Everything and anything is available to those with the means. Poaching, prostitution, extortion and more are simply signs of the times, and it might be too late for those who don’t want to play along.
Shot in the Gobi desert by Du Jie the film captures both the beauty and desolation of the landscape. Looking at times like a post-apocalyptic vista the desert is not only a character itself but also an equally dangerous one. Simultaneously threatening and gorgeous, it’s a perfect backdrop for the savagery and illusory civility of man.
Ning actually completed his film in 2009, but it failed to pass China’s strict censorship rules. The delay lasted until just last year when the film finally received a release and went on to find major critical and box office success. Just what may or may not have been changed remains a mystery, but it’s a fair bet that the film’s epilogue was added somewhere along the line. It’s appreciated but unnecessary in its optimism.
No Man’s Land is a fun thriller showcasing elements as diverse as The Good the Bad the Weird, Breakdown and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, and it’s immensely entertaining with or without your awareness of its commentary. Big blades, four-chamber revolvers and a menacing truck that would fit in nicely in the Australian outback all come into play, but the deadliest creation here remains man’s greed. Surprise.
The Upside: Action is unexpected and well-crafted; lead character shows a fun progression; gorgeous desert cinematography
The Downside: Main female is portrayed as helpless throughout; epilogue feels unnecessary
On the Side: Xu Zheng recently directed his first film, Lost in Thailand, which went on to become China’s highest grossing film ever.