Xiaogang Feng is certainly not a name many but the most ardent followers of Asia cinema will be familiar with, but the director has built up a strong and commercially reputable reputation in mainland China. With his latest opus 'A World Without Thieves', Feng furthers his reputation as one of the countries leading exponents of commercial filmmaking and this may well be the film that gains him some overdue acclaim in the West. The plot of the film concerns two lovers, Wang Bo (Andy Lau) and Wang Li (Rene Liu), who make their money through grifting and confidence tricks. Wang Bo is a seasoned con man, happy in his work and the life it has afforded him, but things go array when Wang Li discovers pangs of guilt on her conscience. She decides to leave the profession and seek spiritual redemption by following an honest life. Wang Li meets up with Dumbo (Baoqiang Wang), a simple and naive carpenter. Dumbo has decided to head home with his life savings to start a new life and find a bride. He travels with the couple on a crowded train journey across the country. The train however is packed with a team of professional thieves, all of whom have their eye on the impressive riches kept in Dumbo's simple satchel. What follows is a savvy and entertaining adventure that takes its cues from classic escapist films such as George Roy Hill's 'The Sting' and Arthur Hiller's 'Silver Streak'. Wang Li is so touched by the goodness and purity of Dumbo (who cannot see the bad in any person), that she vows to protect his money from the prying hands of master thief Uncle Bill (You Ge) and his cohorts. The same cannot be said for Wang Bo. Lacking the moral fibre of his partner, his interest in protecting Dumbo is a personal one: he wants the loot for himself. It becomes thief against thief as each grifter tries to outsmart the other, all under the nose of the docile Dumbo, oblivious to the games being played with his future. This cracking little caper is a prime example that popular Asian cinema isn't all about horror, and can more than hold it's own against its Western counterparts in various genre's. Xiaogang Feng keeps the action going at a pace, and it is to his credit that the limited set that is the train is never made to compromise the film. The cinematography is beautiful, making the best use of the awe-inspiring landscapes which provide a welcome contrast to the claustrophobia of the train carriage. Andy Lau proves once again what a versatile and effective actor he is (potentially another cross-over star in the making) and he is more than ably backed up by impressive performances from all the principle actors, not least Baoqiang Wang whose perfectly judged portrayal as the hapless Dumbo is a joy to watch. The movie is nicely balanced between detailed character driven interplay and staple balletic action scenes, providing a feast for the eyes without patronising the brain (Hollywood take note). The film succeeds because it strives to make us care for the characters and engross ourselves in their actions and motivations. We are as much in league with the naive goodness of Dumbo as we are entertained by the amoral trickery of Wang Bo. We watch enthralled equally by the development and growth of the characters as we are to the slick and addictive plotline, which serves as a testament to Feng's success in balancing the two to perfection. This is at its centre a film about the possibilities of redemption for characters who fall between the lines of good and bad, and must choose through their actions which route to take that may determine their ultimate fate. An action adventure with a heart, this is a minor gem of a film.
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