NO MAN’S LAND
Starring: Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo
Director: Ning Hao
Category: IIB (Putonghua)
If there is a Chinese equivalent of the Coen brothers, it's probably Shanxi native Ning Hao; the director's acerbic comic capers (Crazy Stone; Crazy Racer; Mongolian Ping Pong) unravel as cynical dog-eat-dog scenarios of misanthropes scheming to top each other.
No Man's Land might be the harshest of his films yet. Mainland censors were disturbed enough to shelve the movie for four years. Judging by the nice upbeat epilogue, who knows how much Ning's vision was compromised to appease the authorities. But despite the re-edits, the result is a nihilistic and delightful bender. Thanks to its cheekiness, it ends up being more captivating than disturbing.
An arrogant and opportunistic big city lawyer, Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng), represents a falcon-poaching crime boss in a small dustbowl town. He gets the defendant off, and presumes the poacher will owe him big time. But there is little honour among thieves in the lawless dusty frontier towns of northwest China.
Trying to drive home across the Gobi desert — in his client's snazzy red car, which he took as partial payment — the unscrupulous attorney runs into more than his fair share of hick crazies and amoral villains. "Extortion? We don't like that word around here," a grizzled gas station owner says to him after overcharging for a tank of gas. But when you have a dead body in your trunk (sorry, we're not explaining that here), and you're in a creepy ramshackle truck-stop, you pay the toll and get the hell out of there.
As it turns out, the lawyer is the lowest creature in the pecking order in this dry and unforgiving terrain. The only character with any redeeming qualities is Jiaojiao (Yu Nan), a hooker with a heart of gold. But even she's not above telling a lie or two to survive.
"This is a story of animals," Pan expresses in a voiceover at the start of the film, as he relates a parable about the merciless nature of wild beasts. Naturally, the sensitive Chinese government thinks the movie's corrupt and uncivil anarchy is a critique of its own rule. They wouldn't be wrong, but No Man's Land is as much about the government as No Country for Old Men is about George W. Bush.
The Coens' sensibility is most evident in the dark and dry comic tone. No Man's Land's bleak and malicious characters would not be out of place in film noirs like Blood Simple or Fargo. As the crime boss, Duo Bujie looks and drives like he belongs in a Mad Max movie, but the tragic-comic trials and tribulations endured by his henchman (Chinese star comic Huang Bo) are typical Coen character farce.
As Pan digs himself deeper into trouble, karma and causality conspire to make everyone pay for their sins. But under Ning's deft direction, justice is almost random, and seeking retribution is asking for trouble. That's not morality, but it's certainly fun to watch.
No Man's Land opens on May 1