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Asia Extreme – Grifters on a Train: A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES

The grifter has been a cinematic staple since the early days of the medium, and there probably isn’t a national cinema that doesn’t have at least a handful of con man/woman films in their celluloid archives. Much like gangsters, the con man is often a romanticized figure – we wouldn’t want to cross paths with one in real life, but we love seeing them succeed on the silver screen. And whether dashing (Redford and Newman in THE STING) or downright devilish (Angelica Huston in THE GRIFTERS) the allure of the scam artist will never fade.

It must be a challenge for filmmakers to put a fresh spin on the subject, particularly when your lead characters are a good-looking, charismatic couple. In A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES, director Feng Xiaogang turns the genre upside down and creates a work that refuses to follow any set pattern. What begins as a straightforward portrait of two young grifters soon becomes a hybrid romance-melodrama-suspense story framed in a classic Hitchcockian milieu aboard a train.

The film opens with con-artists/lovers Wang Li (Rene Liu) and Wang Bo (Andy Lau) extorting money from a rich man they’ve set up in an all-too-obvious scam. Fleeing to the countryside, they stop to visit a large Buddhist temple. He uses the opportunity to steal wallets, watches, and cameras from the visiting pilgrims, while she has something of a spiritual awakening, and walks away from the experience determined to live a crime-free existence, a decision her beau both opposes and finds incredulous.

By chance they happen upon Dumbo (Wang Baoqiang), a greener-than-green country bumpkin who is traveling by train to his village in order to find a bride, carrying a satchel full of money he earned over several years. In her newly self-rehabilitated state, Wang Li decides to protect Dumbo on the epic journey home. Naturally, there are other thieves aboard the train, including the mysterious Uncle Li (You Ge) and his team, who take a particular interest in Wang Bo and his skills.

What separates A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES from other similarly-themed films is its moral center. Though never preachy, it does raise a few questions on whether it’s better for the pure and innocent to be shielded from wrongdoers, or rather to have them experience, firsthand, lessons of suffering and hardship, arguing that naiveté isn’t something to be proud of. It also questions whether or not people can fundamentally change – will Wang Li’s good deed erase her past acts and rid her of her guilty conscience? You certainly won’t find any such ideas or considerations in a David Mamet film.

Though not overtly political, it’s hard not to view the film as something of a statement on a rapidly changing China, particularly from an economic perspective. Though vast steps are being made towards embracing a true free-market economy, there are deep-seated cultural, historical, and social issues that need to be addressed. The credo of Uncle Li and his gang of thieves –“greatness is ruthless”–combined with the ease and confidence in which they plan to steal Dumbo’s money can be seen, perhaps, as a metaphor for the exploitation of China’s poor and working class by the multinational corporations looking to cut costs by doing business abroad.

Where A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES disappoints somewhat is in its moments of action and suspense. There are some clever thievery montages that are choreographed much like a martial arts sequence, but the editing is confusing, and the action difficult to follow at times. The same goes for an extended fight scene on top of the speeding train – it’s one we’ve seen countless times before, and is a superfluous sequence at best.

Regular viewers of contemporary Asian cinema certainly won’t find the overly melodramatic conclusion surprising, but the tonal shift throughout the film is gradual, and quite subtle. There’s nothing in its opening moments that indicates it will end up where it does. Though ultimately a moral polemic, A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES still manages to entertain and surprise, and is a novel entry in the grifter genre.

A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES is part of Sundance Channel’s Asia Extreme series, available this month free on Video on Demand.