A train speeding through China becomes a grifters’ battleground in the ironically titled “A World Without Thieves,” an immensely stylish star showcase teaming names from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland. Released Dec. 9, latest pic by Mainland hitmeister Feng Xiaogang outperformed even his last, “Cell Phone,” with a rousing 100 million yuan ($12 million), second only to the local take of “House of Flying Daggers” last year. Fests and film weeks interested in showcasing quality mainstream East Asian cinema shouldn’t hesitate.
First seen blackmailing a horny businessman into signing over his car, con artists Wang Bo (Andy Lau) from Hong Kong and Wang Li (Rene Liu) from Taiwan drive to the wilds of southern Gansu province to visit the famed Tibetan-style Labrang Monastery. While Wang Li is bowing to Buddha, Wang Bo is lifting worshippers’ cell phones; however, Wang Li decides she’s had enough of the grifter’s life, so the partners call it quits.
Meanwhile, Wang Li takes a liking to Dumbo (Wang Baoqiang), a naive young workman who’s about to return home with a sizable 60,000 yuan ($7,200) in cash from laboring in the dusty province. She offers to ride the train to Beijing with Dumbo, who believes in “a world without thieves,” to ward off pickpockets.
Wang Bo also comes along for the ride, though he’s more interested in making sure Dumbo’s wad is reserved for himself rather than a gang of grifters, led by master con man Uncle Li (Ge You).
The stage is set for a complex series of con-frontations, with Wang Bo and Uncle Li first facing off in a demo of their skills (involving memorable ways of peeling a fresh egg), and then supposedly agreeing not to “work” the train. However, one of Uncle’s gang, the ambitious, foxy Little Leaf (rising star Li Bingbing, in a knockout perf), has other ideas, resulting in an erotically charged tango between her and Wang Bo.
With its collection of characters, and surprise revelations, pic develops into a classic train suspenser, with plenty of action in the latter stages and the game between Wang Bo and Uncle climaxing in a showdown as the journey nears its end. However, typically for Feng’s movies, script also develops an emotional undercurrent between Wang Bo and Wang Li, as well as the naive Dumbo, that makes the film more than just an action drama.
As the cynical, apothegm-spouting Uncle Li, Ge, a regular in all of Feng’s movies, gradually steals the pic from the titular stars, Lau and Liu, though both hold their own among the experienced cast of Mainlanders. As the mercurial Wang Bo, Hong Kong megastar Lau acquits himself well in Mandarin (and with more authority than in “Flying Daggers”), while the enchanting Liu brings a warm edge to her role as Wang Li that chimes well with Wang as the ever-trusting kid.
Technically, pic is the slickest yet by helmer Feng — sometimes too much so, in occasional, flashily edited sequences that don’t add anything to the drama. Widescreen lensing by Zhang Li makes the most of the striking Gansu locations, and studio-shot interiors are bathed in warm colors.