World Without Thieves, A (HK - DVD)
Feng Xiaogang assembles an all star cast to deliver an adventure set inside a moving train. Is this another gem from the Far East ...
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Mainland Chinese titles tend not to receive the same level of awareness as mainstream HK blockbusters, especially in the west. Tragically, it means that so many excellent films escape the public’s radar. Obviously this is not a primary concern in China, where Feng Xiaogang is a recognised director working on commercially successful titles. The immensely popular A World Without Thieves is gradually generating global interest, partially thanks to its all star cast comprising of Andy Lau, Rene Liu and veteran actor Ge You.
Wang Bo and Wang Li (Andy Lau and Rene Liu respectively) are a romantic couple whose relationship revolves around conning the weak minded and stealing their valuables. The guilty conscience becomes too much for Wang Li to bear, so she decides to quit her dishonest lifestyle even if it means abandoning her partner. On their latest train ride across China, they encounter a naïve carpenter, lovingly named Dumbo, who is so oblivious to the thieves around him that he is confident in returning home with his money. Touched by his innocence and purity, Wang Li is determined to make sure that Dumbo’s life savings are protected throughout the journey. Her frustrated partner does what he can but a team of thieves, led by the sinister Uncle Bill, also have their eyes fixed on Dumbo’s cash.
A World Without Thieves employs various qualities that bring life to a mainstream movie – namely a simple storyline, flamboyant visuals and a wonderful score. Writer-director Xiaogang has the perfect recipe for a commercial blockbuster but has graciously provided plenty of beautiful and meaningful details. The underlying message of repenting our sins and becoming a better person is a powerful lesson that the two romantic thieves are trying to understand.
The characters are instantly likeable; even the ones who deliberately try to act irritable are a pleasure to watch. Xiaogang has provided such a diverse range of personalities that each thief is uniquely different and special. Of course this would not have been possible without the cast, each one delivering a thoroughly entertaining performance. Andy Lau always gives his heart and soul, regardless of movie and A World Without Thieves is no exception. His character is in an interesting predicament – does he stick by his partner despite the circumstances or snatch the money and flee from everyone? Lau vividly portrays frustration - appearing overblown at times but is well adapted to the film’s theatrical style.
Rene Liu does a splendid job in portraying a woman desperately seeking honesty and purity in her sudden religion interest. Wang Li’s intentions are always kept secretive, not even the audience understands her full torment until the climactic ending. Wang Baoqiang’s performance as the comic relief Dumbo is simply adorable and it is easy to see why anyone would want to protect him. In absolute contrast lies one of the most sinister, sleaziest villains ever to grace the silver screen. Ge You as Uncle Bill is frightening but strangely charming at the same time. It is difficult to decipher his mood as he usually maintains a neutral yet decidedly stern gaze.
The director has structured the story well, revealing subtle twists that eventually build up to a spectacular finale. Just like professional con artists, A World Without Thieves is about illusions and manipulation – fooling the audience into a false sense of security before introducing a major turning point. The pickpocket segments are beautifully orchestrated, which have been given an elegant martial arts quality to them. When there are three individuals all trying to grab a single item, the battle almost becomes a dance with fingers and palms blazing in all directions. Andy Lau’s use of the razor blade, as he slices pockets and fingers, is particularly hypnotic to watch.
The production value appears strikingly polished, utilising sophisticated effects and stunts accompanied by stylish, high tempo editing. Powerful lighting, florescent shades and solid filters play a predominant role in illustrating a remarkably colourful film. Xiaogang has chosen to expose the breathtaking scenery of rural China, a refreshing change from the bustling city of Hong Kong. The countryside and desolate landscapes have been magnificently framed, even managing to capture an entire mountain in certain shots. The claustrophobic interior shots of the crammed train express a uniquely Chinese setting. However the luxurious first class compartments and passenger nightclub indicate that China is modernising at an alarming rate, despite holding onto a wealth of culture and tradition.
It is delightful to hear a Mandarin language film; the dialogue is immensely poetic with the thieves speaking in constant metaphors. Never before has a film’s title been so appropriately used in a conversation, leaving a lasting impact right through to the closing chapter. A World Without Thieves provides a great opportunity to delve into the world of mainland Chinese cinema. It has all the eye candy of a vibrant blockbuster with added depth and artistic merit for those who crave something a little more contemporary.
The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, maintaining an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image looks absolutely stunning, preserving a consistent razor sharp image and reproducing some radiant shades. The film is intended to look great and the transfer does not disappoint. Foreground and background details remain precise, the body actions are incredibly fluid and grain is kept to a minimum. Black levels are wholesome and deep, eliminating any traces of grey.
However there are some minor flaws, most noticeably with the colours and high contrast levels. As previously mentioned, the director has opted to splatter the screen with some bright and florescent tones. Unfortunately this has lead to some smearing and obstruction of details, especially when the reds and oranges dominate the frame. In addition, some of the faster moments lose a slight amount of focus, although it may have originated from principal photography as opposed to the video encoding. Thankfully the image is still perceptible and the aforementioned issues are not distracting in the slightest. Whilst the print remains warm and glazed, it is sadly not entirely clean – speckles and grains of dirt manage to creep up occasionally. Again the artefacts are too small to cause concern but a quick wash would not have hurt.
Four spectacular soundtracks have been crammed onto the DVD, all of which utilise 6.1 surround sound technology. Viewers have the option of Dolby Digital 6.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES soundtracks in both Cantonese and Mandarin, where the latter is the film’s original language. In addition, there are five sets of subtitles – Chinese for Mandarin audio (traditional and simplified), Chinese for Cantonese audio (traditional and simplified) and English. The English subtitles are reasonable and follow the story well. Examining the Dolby Digital effort, the dialogue seems to be focused on the frontal array; sounding clear and distinguished. The rears rarely remain silent, always detecting the subtlest of ambient noise with excellent clarity. Once the characters are on the train, the mechanical hums and the passenger murmurs are professionally separated into the appropriate channels.
The DTS track is a mind blowing experience that easily dwarfs its Dolby counterpart. It is simply one of the loudest audio mixes ever transferred on a DVD. If the audience is not careful then the sudden theatrical score could catch them off guard; the vast increase in dynamic range is only one of the many improvements over the Dolby option. There is also greater texture in the audio, providing plenty of depth and reverb to the dialogue and primary noises. Even the rears are emphasised; the village chapters manage to detect audio traces mysteriously absent from the Dolby mix. The LFE channel is colossal in every sense of the word, pushing the bass to provide a more fulfilling soundtrack.
The Cantonese dubbing synchronises the lip movement well but it is still obvious that it is not the film’s original language. The dialogue volume is also largely inconsistent, making the Mandarin track the preferred option.
All the supplementary materials have been placed on the second disc. Starting things off is “The Story”, which is a plot outline of the movie (in Chinese and English) for anyone too lazy to read the blurb or watch the film.
There are six deleted scenes, which are great to watch but have quite rightly been omitted from the final print. Most of the scenes reveal too much, providing the audience with answers to pretty straightforward situations. Only new dialogue has been included to expand on existing chapters and highlight the characters in a new light. One scene involves a hilarious conversation between Andy Lau’s character and a young security guard. Although it was enjoyable to watch, Lau’s frustration is better exposed towards the middle of the film. The great news is that optional English subtitles are provided for the deleted scenes.
Next up is a 6 minute making of featurette that provides a glimpse into the filming procedure. It mainly comprises of interviews between the director and starring actors but also finds time to examine the magnificent locations and seamless special effects. It is evident that the film looks drastically different in its natural light, without the use of filters. However due to the runtime, the viewer is not given enough time to fully appreciate the hard work of the filmmakers. Furthermore, the documentary is in Chinese without English subtitles.
A theatrical trailer dubbed in Cantonese, again without English subtitles, is next on the list. Unlike conventional Asian trailers, this one has been professionally edited to wet the audience’s appetite but not spoil key chapters of the film.
Those who are severely interested can check out the director and cast biographies and filmographies. These are brief but are at least in English.
A photo montage lasting 11m15s is included on the disc, which is accompanied by the excellent music from the film. The collection ranges from movie and behind the scenes photographs.
To finish things off, there is a trailer for Seoul Raiders and two preview featurettes for Initial D and the Infernal Affairs Trilogy. The Initial D preview is in English but the Infernal Affairs featurette is in Cantonese with Chinese subtitles only.
A World Without Thieves is a triumphant release from mainland China and is arguably Andy Lau’s greatest film since Infernal Affairs. With its spectacular pickpocket choreography, solid morals and tranquilising score, A World Without Thieves is definitely an unexpected surprise from the Far East. The DVD is a lovely little release from Kam & Ronson, with one of the most aggressive DTS soundtracks ever encoded. Those who are tired of HK titles constantly regurgitating mundane ideas then be prepared to be mesmerised by Feng Xiaogang’s latest offering.
You can purchase this title for $6.99 from Yes Asia.
Review by Bodhi Sarkar
Release Date: 27th January 2005
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 6.1 EX Mandarin, DTS ES 6.1 Mandarin, Dolby Digital 6.1 EX Cantonese, DTS ES 6.1 Cantonese
Subtitles: Chinese Traditional (Cantonese), Chinese Simplified (Cantonese), Chinese Traditional (Mandarin), Chinese Simplified (Mandarin), English
Extras: Plot Outline, Deleted Scenes, Making of Featurette, Trailer, Director and Cast Biographies/Filmographies, Photo Montage, Seoul Raiders Trailer, Initial D Preview Featurette, Infernal Affairs Trilogy Featurette
Easter Egg: No
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Cast: Andy Lau, Rene Liu, Ge You
Length: 113 minutes
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