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December 16, 2013

No Man’s Land (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 12:51 pm

No Man’s Land

December 16, 2013
Maggie Lee

With a nod to the Coen brothers’ jet-black humor and twisty plotting, mainland helmer Ning Hao takes his personal brand of Chinese picaresque to nihilistic levels in “No Man’s Land.” An oater-cum-road-movie in which a lawyer’s misadventures on a lawless Xinjiang highway becomes a metaphor for a society governed by base human instincts, the film delivers white-knuckle suspense and mean action sequences spiked with an undercurrent of misanthropy and outrage. Ning’s acerbic wit has been endorsed locally with a nine-day B.O. haul of more than $27 million; offshore, the pic’s cool noir style and breathtaking desert vistas should draw Asian-friendly arthouse and genre crowds.

Completed in 2009 and scheduled for release six times over the past few years, only to be held back each time, “No Man’s Land” is rumored to have run afoul of China’s film bureau due to its allegedly negative portrayal of police (not noticeable in the current version). It’s impossible to tell from the final screened version how many edits or reshoots it has gone through, but except for a mawkish ending that feels tagged on, the yarn is tautly paced and structured.

Although speculation surrounding the film’s delayed opening no doubt stirred curiosity, it owes its commercial success primarily to the casting. While male leads Huang Bo and Xu Zheng have both appeared in Ning’s hit crime capers “Crazy Stone” (2006) and “Crazy Racer” (2009), it was their pairing in this year’s “Lost in Thailand,” China’s highest-grossing domestic film, that hyped up expectations for this particular outing.

Neither as crowdpleasing as the “Crazy” series nor even classifiable as comedy, “No Man’s Land” is instead a social allegory that harks back to the dyed-in-the-wool cynicism of Ning’s 2003 debut feature, “Incense”; both films portray spineless protags who find themselves shortchanged by an even more immoral society. Compared with that earlier work, this one is less dry and formalistic, expanding the same theme in a more entertaining genre framework. And although it alludes to Hollywood genres, it’s more stylistically coherent than the kitschy fusion of martial arts, noisy farce and Indiana Jones-style cliches represented by past Chinese Westerns set in desert locations, from Gao Qunshu’s “Wind Blast” to Liu Weiran’s “Welcome to Shama Town” and Zhang Yimou’s “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.”

“This is a story about animals,” announces the voiceover of protagonist Pan Xiao (Xu), setting up a running motif about man’s instincts toward predation and self-protection. These ideas are underlined by an arresting opening action sequence in which an illegal poacher (Huang) hunts down two endangered falcons in the Xinjiang desert. He is caught by policeman Wang (Zhao Hu) but escapes with the help of his boss, Lao Da (Tibetan thesp Duo Bujie, imposing), who stages a road accident as part of their getaway.

It is to this barren outpost that big-city lawyer Pan is summoned to defend Lao Da against allegations of dangerous driving. When the lawsuit wraps in the defendant’s favor, Pan coerces his client into giving him his late wife’s car as collateral for deferred payment. As the red Mustang roars along the lonely highway, the city slicker who can’t wait to get out of Hicksville unwittingly trespasses into 500 kilometers of no man’s land.

What follows bears some resemblance to Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn,” turning into a freakshow of roughneck nasties, who take turns insulting, scamming, thrashing and seducing Pan. Unlike the small-time crooks in Ning’s crime capers, whose colorful speech and goofy shenanigans give them a touch of quirky charm, the characters in “No Man Land” are physically and morally repugnant. Setting a new standard of grotesquerie in mainland comedy are a scuzzy family of three who run the world’s filthiest rest stop, and two loutish truck drivers whose idea of courtesy is to spit on the windshields of passing vehicles.

Every time Pan invokes the law, he invites more injustice, and audiences may feel torn between deploring his situation and enjoying the comeuppance of someone who routinely bends the law to his own advantage. Though the majority of the narrative is set on one straight highway, the ace car crashes and chase sequences devised by Hong Kong stunt coordinator Bruce Law (“Man of Taichi,” “The Raid 2″) keeps delivering visual thrills, while Pan’s endless reversals of fortunes and the other characters’ elusive comings and goings sustain an air of unpredictability. The appearance of Jiaojiao (Yu Nan), a sassy prostitute who becomes Pan’s unwanted travel companion, finally lends the narrative some human connection and dramatic heft.

Xu’s unscrupulous Pan bears a superficial resemblance to the mercenary yuppies he played in “Lost in Thailand” and its prequel, “Lost on Journey,” but in contrast with those trips, he’s on a less redemptive path. The actor is more low-key than usual here, his character evincing few signs of growth or emotional development, even when his conscience is tested in various life-and-death scenarios.

Playing an ingenue one minute and a hustler the next, Yu convinces as both, but is finally let down by an arbitrary epilogue that reduces her to a platitudinous mouthpiece. Huang amuses with his zombielike mannerisms without skimping on the character’s malevolence, while Duo’s quietly unhinged sociopath recalls Anton Chigurh from “No Country for Old Men.”

The harsh landscape (the film was shot around the craggy dunes of Xinjiang’s Hami region) evokes a godforsaken wasteland where every shred of human propriety has been discarded. Ning’s regular lenser, Du Jie, makes spectacular use of widescreen format to convey the velocity of the driving sequences as well as the vastness of the desert. Production designer Hao Yi’s grimy sets, beat-up vehicles and shabby costumes are totally of a piece with the dusty sepia tones of the imagery, and Nathan Wang’s thunderous, Ennio Morricone-inspired score goes well with the potent sound mix.

Directed by Ning Hao. Screenplay, Shu Ping, Xing Aina, Cu Xishu, Wang Hongwei, Shang Ke, Ning. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Du Jie; editor, Du Yuan; music, Nathan Wang; production designer, Hao Yi; set decorator, Maimaitiyiming Kelimu; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Gang; re-recording mixer, Wang Gang; visual effects supervisors, Wang Lifeng, Steve Katz, Miao Chun; stunt coordinator, Bruce Law; associate producers, Miao Xiaotian, Ling Hong, Kuan Xiaoze; casting, Li Kai.

(China) A China Film Group release of a China Film Co., Beijing Orange Sky Golden Harvest TV & Film Prod. Co., Beijing Guoli Changsheng Movies & TV Prod. Co., Yinji Entertainment & Media, Beijing Galloping Horse Film Co., Emperor Film and Entertainment (Beijing) presentation, production. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Han Sanping, Zhao Haicheng. Executive producers, Han Xiaoli, Peisen Li, Shirley Lau, Ning Hao, Yu Weiguo, Lin Fanxi; Co-executive producers, Zhang Qiang, Dan Mintz, Ivy Zhong, Albert Lee.

Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Duo Bujie, Huang Bo, Wang Shuangbao, Sun Jianmin, Yang Xinmin, Guo Hong, Wang Pei, Zhao Hu, Tao Hong. (Mandarin dialogue, Xinjiang dialect)

August 30, 2013

Fake Fiction (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 11:45 am

Fake Fiction

8/30/2013 by Clarence Tsui
Bottom Line: Solid performances from Xu Zheng and child star Zhang Zifeng carry a film showcasing an unsure approach in inject harsh social critique into a comedy.

The director-star of China’s highest-grossing homegrown release returns, playing a small-time trickster who regains his conscience in the company of a young girl.

For the past month, Xu Zheng has been nearly omnipresent in mainland Chinese cinemas.

He was first seen in a cameo in the Fan Bingbing romantic comedy One Night Surprise, and then his voice was heard doing Sully’s lines in the Mandarin dubbed version of Monsters University. The proper test for the actor, however, comes with Fake Fiction, his first full-fledged, feature film role after the runaway success of Lost in Thailand – which he starred in and directed.

It’s a surprisingly low-key, mid-budget and highly intimate affair, set mostly within an unnamed seaside city and driven mostly by the growing bond between hustling magician David Ou (Xu) and runaway schoolgirl Diudiu (Zhang Zifeng).

It’s hardly a coincidence that the film’s Chinese title is the same as the long-used translation for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Just like that 1936 classic, Fake Fiction makes an attempt to chronicle the struggle of the under-class in a society that has seen turbo-charged economic growth. But there’s no place for the Little Tramp’s naivete in the 21st century: the victims have taken up the cynicism of the prevailing system, with Ou more a con-man than an illusionist and Diudiu a troublesome brat who descends on the trickster’s apartment one day, claiming to be his daughter.

The Paulette Goddard character in Modern Times is split into two here: while Diudiu fills the part of the orphan-in-distress, the guardian angel that gives the protagonist a job and an opportunity to thrive is manifested here in the form of Mao Na (Vanessa Wang Xuanyu), a sharply dressed (read: open-necked shirts, short skirts, stilettos) artistic director of the cultural subsidiary of a business corporation – a capacity which belies, as she later admits to Ou, a long struggle starting from her days as a nightclub dancer.

The trio is forced together as Mao commissions Ou to perform a trick that will make a big, seaside religious statue disappear. Thinking of grabbing the initial down payment and run, Ou finds himself duped when his agent actually takes off for Dubai with the money before he can – which leads to the magician having to really make the impossible trick work with Diudiu’s help.

The bickering inevitably is replaced by affection, of course, but there are also moments that actually stray off the formula: one of the film’s odd but effectively disturbing scenes involve Mao being coerced into getting up on a table to dance for the tycoon bankrolling the business deals of her creepy boss (Zhang Songwen). With Ou’s clownish antics failing to deflect the situation, the stand-off only leads to a chastening, dignity-stripping experience.

It’s one of a few scenes that look quite out of place in Fake Fiction’s oddball, odd-couple comedy formula – and it’s also a sign of how the filmmakers tried to approach the material in different ways, but were unable to deliver a coherent style, both in terms of storytelling – the conclusion of the story demands extreme suspension of disbelief from the viewer – but also in terms of visuals. While some of Shao Weihong’s handheld camera work gives certain exterior scenes a gritty, earthier look, the same technique is out of place for the sequences filmed indoors.

But at least Fake Fiction can count on a bankable performance from the perennially charismatic Xu, who is best here when caught in acerbic exchanges with the natural child-star debutant Zhang Zifeng. While not exactly the full-fledged real deal – melodrama still takes a bow here with the now inevitable scenes of a guilty and crying man searching for lost girl in torrential rain – Fake Fiction is a move, a small step maybe, towards comedy motored by the tears of a socially marginalized clown.

Production Companies: Zhujiang Film Group, Dadi Century Films, Light and Magic of China Cast: Xu Zheng, Zhang Zifeng, Zhang Songwen, Wang Xuanyu
Director: Shao Xiaoli (as “Chief Director”), Du Peng
Producers: Liu Hongbing, Liu Yong, Tian Zhenshan
Executive Producers: Lin Hai, Shao Xiaoli
Screenplay: Du Peng, Ning Dai, Shao Xiaoli, Gao Wei
Director of Photography: Shao Weihong
Art Director: Weng Yu Music: Guan Peng
Editor: Jiang Yong
In Mandarin
Running Time 93 minutes

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