Somewhere in between Mad Max, Deliverance and the Coen brothers' patented brand of cynicism: that's where you'll find Chinese helmer Ning Hao's utterly deranged look at the most irredeemable aspects of society. A scathing satire wrapped inside an all-out, balls-to-the-wall exploitation thriller, No Man's Land revels in minutely detailing the sort of Cold Comfort Farm territory where an outsider's slightest unwitting misstep in an unwelcoming place unleashes a torrent of disaster, only with a snarky, almost nihilistic bite.
The premise has big-city lawyer Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng) summoned to the God-forsaken vastness of the Gobi desert, to get a falcon poacher (Huang Bo) off the hook - only to find himself trapped in a progressively more surreal, quasi-Twilight Zone-ish series of scams, chases and twists that make his supposedly ruthless lawyerly tricks look like child's play next to the truly ruthless people that scrounge a living in these remote, forgotten places. As Pan realises everyone around him is an even bettler hustler than he is - down to the wily but also trapped prostitute played with great charm by Yu Nan - the city shark becomes a hunted minnow for a series of much more dangerous savage beasts (and the film's voiceover opens with "this is a story about animals", so there).
Mr. Ning directs No Man's Land with an insouciant, derivative energy that suggests he's internalized the rules of contemporary Western genre film and is ready to pile everything on to deliberately excessive effect - as if style could be the only possible redemption for the film's avowed derivativeness. No Man's Land becomes a Pandora's box of ironic, surreal plot reversals that switch from survival thriller to post-modern western, appropriating genre codes and attitudes with a wink and a nod - cue Du Jie's stylishly desaturated lensing in sandy tones - but also a savage sense of none-more-black humour.
That the release of No Man's Land was held up in China for four years, allegedly due to its nihilistic worldview of irredeemable corruption, comes as a surprise, especially given the rapturous success that received it at the Chinese box-office. And that such a Western-codified film is not receiving more Western acclaim, even among the "vulgar auteurism" defenders, remains much puzzling.
WU REN QU
Cast Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo, Duo Bujie, Wang Shuangbao
Director Ning Hao; screenwriters Shu Ping, Xing Aina, Cu Xishu, Wang Hongwei, Shang Ke and Mr. Ning; cinematographer Du Jie (colour, widescreen); composers Nathan Wong, Dongdong and Jiang Wi; designer Xiao Yi; editor Du Yuan; producers Han Shanping and Zhao Haicheng; production companies China Film Company, Orange Sky Golden Harvest TV & Film Production Company, Guoli Changsheng Movies & TV Production, DMG Entertainment, Galloping Horse Productions, Bad Monkey and Emperor Film & Entertainment
Screened February 14th 2014, Friedrichstadtpalast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition screening)