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.