A pair of amoral thieves end up defending a tiny village they initially came to pilfer in “The Robbers,” a rambunctious black comedy in period duds that plays like a Chinese riff on “Seven Samurai.” More ironic than knockabout in its humor, and packing an earthy punch in its action sequences, this is an intelligent crowdpleaser with some limited commercial potential beyond East Asia, especially if platformed at Western fests.
In his second feature, self-trained filmmaker Yang Shupeng (aka Leon Yang) delivers on the promise shown in his 2007 WWII drama, “The Cold Flame,” especially in his handling of actors and mood. Yang’s offhandedly witty script — whose flavor was not fully reflected in the subtitles on the print caught — is brought vividly to life by leads Hu Jun and Jiang Wu, whose screen chemistry holds the movie together.
Setting is a remote area in central China during the supposedly highly cultured Tang dynasty — referred to in the film’s ironic Chinese title (“My Tang Dynasty Brothers”) and in a witty, straight-faced cameo by helmer Yang himself as a fraudulent wandering poet. (Latter sequence requires careful resubtitling to bring out the humor for general auds.)
When itinerant ruffians Xue Shisun (Hu, dressed like a Japanese ronin) and tubby Chen Liu (Jiang) arrive in Kuzhulin Village, they initially pose as thirsty hunters. But after getting a drink from villager Ma Qi (Li Sa), Xue announces he’s actually a robber and demands Ma’s money. Meanwhile, Chen starts cozying up to Ma’s daughter, Luo Niang (Wang Xiao), who’s engaged to a local.
From then on, the pic becomes a rondo of capture and escape as Xue and Chen are arrested by the village head, talk their way out of things, are arrested again by soldiers who’ve been hunting them for several years, and are then helped to escape by the village’s beautiful (but deadly) female butcher, Ying Ge (striking TV thesp Yu Xiaolei, in her first major film role).
As the to-and-fro continues, a leery bond starts to form between the two amoral reprobates and the dumb-but-not-so-dumb yokels, with the former helping the latter against the corrupt soldiery. Following a cataclysmic finale, the unexpected coda is actually quite moving.
As the two robbers who seem to have no moral compass at all, Hu and Jiang manage to switch from character comedy to serious combat with deceptive ease. Hu, too often cast in woodenly serious roles, looks especially relaxed here, and chimes well with Yu in their disappointingly few “romantic” scenes. Actors playing the villagers are excellent, never tipping into pratfall comedy.
Clever editing manages to pack a lot into the tight running time without any feeling of haste, and an excellent score (part orchestral, part Beijing Opera-like) binds the film’s several moods together. Shooting in an actual (redressed) village in Zhejiang province, helmer Yang gets the most out of the landscape in a down-and-dirty way, as well as plenty of physical oomph in the battles with the soldiery.