No Man’s Land: Film Review

No Man's Land H
A bleak and completely engaging Chinese neo-western thriller that works on almost every level.

Ning Hao’s long shelved comedy-thriller finally gets a release and proves to be worth the wait.

Thieves, snobs, hot-tempered smugglers and petty mercenaries are among the unsavory characters that populate the arid No Man’s Land, a nihilistic and fatalistic romp on modern China’s bleak side. The latest by mainland filmmaker Ning Hao, who made a splash with his comedies Crazy Stone and Mongolian Ping Pong, is that rare movie that can pull off making such aggressively unlikeable people compelling. It’s familiar genre stuff—the average Joe caught in a situation spiraling out of control—but Ning takes such pleasure in exploiting its conventions the end result is a darkly humorous comment on disintegrating morality and unchecked, rampant selfishness.

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Relegated to release limbo after running afoul of China’s SARFT, No Man’s Land finally hit Chinese screens in December with little in the way of explanation but great box office fanfare, hauling in over $20 million in its first week. Shot in 2009, the film was deemed inappropriate and "depraved," and in the interim, Ning went on to make the bland but serviceable Guns and Roses. No Man’s Land is a welcome return to form for Ning (more likely Guns was a deviation in the service of penance), a pitch-black comedy-thriller reminiscent of the Coens and early John Dahl, though what version of the film this is and what’s been cut is anyone’s guess. Engaging performances, spectacular visuals and Ning’s name above the title should garner strong festival interest across the board, and release in Asia and targeted markets overseas isn’t out of the question.

The wide-open Gobi desert landscape serves as the perfect dusty, barren backdrop for the action as well as an indicator (hoary though it is) for the characters’ moral landscape. In the grand tradition of the urban neo-western that would rival anything unfolding on the Texas-Mexico border (what Ridley Scott’s The Counselor and Zhang Yimou’s Blood Simple retread; A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop aspired to) No Man’s Land starts with a vicious falcon poacher (a suitably stoic Duo Bujie) and his right hand man (Huang Bo) trapping a bird. The criminal pair has a run-in with a local cop that winds up dead, and next thing you know the poacher is in jail. Enter arrogant lawyer Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng), arriving in the backwater town to represent the poacher pro bono, fully expecting to generate headlines that will lead to fame and fortune.

All that is a set up for a classic scenario wherein one bad decision—an unreported traffic accident—is the catalyst for a personal and professional nightmare that includes a pair of angry truck drivers (Wang Shuangbao, Sun Jianmin), a ramshackle truck stop run by a price-gouging pervert (Yan Xinming), a young prostitute desperate to get out the Podunk "town" (Yu Nan), a bitter cop (Zhao Hu) on a mission to mess with Pan and a horse. Pan’s every decision is a bad one or the wrong one, and as he digs himself deeper and deeper into a moral and ethical quagmire rooted in greed and ambition, it becomes painfully clear there’s no way out for him, and by extension, the everyman Ning has him representing.

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Unlike Jia Zhangke’s similarly nihilistic SARFT-challenging A Touch of Sin, Ning has a better understanding of genre convention and how to manipulate it, and though the film shines a glaring light on how little life is valued in modern mercenary China, Ning is having a gleefully nasty time with it. The cast is also uniformly adept at getting a handle on their characters, and the best segments put viewers on edge predicting how each is likely to react to given situations. As the truck stop owner’s wife, Guo Hong creates a vivid busybody-for-profit in just a few scenes, making her fate simultaneously inevitable and surprising. Huang is particularly amusing as the partner in crime that’s had it with working with idiots, and though Pan is just a reprehensible as the rest, Xu manages to shade him, if not totally redeem him, as the story progresses. It isn’t a spoiler to say no one comes out of the story intact, but the film does end on a vaguely hopeful note, though nothing that would negate all that came before it.

No Man’s Land could use some streamlining; there are segments that would benefit from brevity and Ning often winds up belaboring his point. But Du Jie’s outstanding cinematography—of the opening panorama, a nighttime canyon chase and the final ghostly frontier town as just a few—and Nathan Wang’s evocative Sino-western score make the film’s dead zones bearable.

Opens: General release, China
Production company: China Film Co., Beijing Orange Sky Golden Harvest, Guoli, DMG Entertainment, Galloping Horse, Bad Monkey
Distribution company: Emperor Motion Pictures

Producer: Zhao Haicheng, Han Sanping
Director: Ning Hao
Cast: Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo, Duo Bujie, Wang Shuangbao, Zhao Hu, Yan Xinming
Screenwriter: Shu Ping, Xing Aina, Cui Siwei, Wang Hongwei, Shang Ke, Ning Hao
Executive producer: Ning Hao, Yu Weiguo, Lin Fanxi
Director of Photography: Du Jie
Production Designer: Hao Yi
Music: Nathan Wang
Editor: Du Yuan
No rating, 117 minutes