Wu Ren Qu (No Man’s Land) Review

Posted: March 15, 2014 in 2014 Berlinale, Action, Foreign, Reviews, Thriller
Tags: , , , , , , ,

ImageWhen the lights went up after the premiere of Wu Ren Qu (No Man’s Land) at the 64th Berlinale Film Festival in February, the twists and shocks that came with the feature were not quite over. Director Ning Hao and three of the stars, Xu Zheng, Yu Nan und Huang Bo, took the stage to acknowledge the well deserved applause of an appreciative audience.

There they delivered the final surprise: Xu Zheng, who plays the bespectacled and shaggy-haired lawyer in the feature, had assumed the physical appearance of his adversary, Huang Bo, who portrays the film’s bald, stocky villain. Bo, meanwhile, now sported an almost Elvis-like pompadour. It was more than mere make-up, hairstyles, and costumes, the quartet explained. They looked different (the exception being Nan, familiar to Western audiences from her role as Maggie in The Expendables 2, who remains as lovely as ever) because of the amount of time that had passed since filming. The movie was completed four years earlier, but had been kept from release by Chinese censors who deemed it too nihilistic.

And the censors were half-right. Wu Ren Qu is nihilistic. But wonderfully so.

The movie shows a China that few foreigners have seen. The action is set in the country’s western desert region, and while director Hao has acknowledged the influence of Sergio Leone, George Miller, director of the Mad Max movies, would be equally at home in this bleak, almost post-apocalyptic landscape sparsely populated with hardscrabble, desperate people. The story starts with the illegal capture of hunting falcons, intended for smuggling and sale outside of the country. When the would-be poacher is apprehended, defense lawyer Pan Xiao (Zheng) travels 500 kilometers to outwit the locals, free the criminal, claim more than his just rewards, and return to the city where a prearranged press conference will thrust him into celebrity.

Xiao undoes his own plans through his arrogance and soon finds himself in a last-man-standing struggle to get across the desert, with the poacher, his assassin assistant, the police, two hay-hauling hard asses, and the staff of the most corrupt gas station in the world (free lap dance with every fill up) after him. Meanwhile, the lap dancer is tucked away in the trunk of the car, but no one stays where they are for too long in this movie, particularly if they happen to be off screen for even a moment.

In this scenario, it takes more than one bullet to bring down a bad guy and more than one wreck to put a car out of commission. Director Hao keeps his foot on the accelerator, even when the action shifts to horseback. The finale brings it all together and then blows it up.

There is one final scene that appears to have been tacked on well after the rest of the feature was completed. This epilogue of sorts has the diabetes-inducing sentimentality of a John Woo ending, but given what comes in the film’s first 115 minutes, it’s easy to give the director the benefit of the doubt and assume that this mawkish afterthought was a necessity to get Wu Ren Qu out of the censors’ hands and into the cinema.

Three and a half stars.

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