One of the most thoroughly enjoyable films in the Berlinale 2014 Competition line-up, No Man’s Land was originally shot in 2009, but then held by censorship authorities and rescheduled several times over the past few years because of its allegedly negative portrayal of the police. After at least three official resubmissions and endless editing and re-cutting, the currently circulating version of the film finally got a general release in China in 2013. Except for its newly attached, and effectively arbitrary ending, it comes as a welcome surprise that Ning Hao’s wildly cynical (and frequently bonkers) fable remains tightly paced and eminently fun to watch.
A nihilistic neo-Western road movie comedy thriller, No Man’s Land concerns the relationship between man’s animal instincts and social responsibility, with greed being the driving force in a spectacular cat and mouse game set on a lonely stretch of the Gobi Desert highway. The action-packed, if inherently simplistic, plot spins around attorney Pan Xiao, a swanky city slicker who drives to the remote desert region of Xinjiang to defend Lao Da, a falcon poacher accused (and, in fact, guilty) of murder. An expert in his profession, Pan manages to get him off the hook, but when the two men sit down to settle business, disagreements about Pan’s fees lead the greedy lawyer to take over the reins and drive off in his client’s brand new red mustang. And while things may have been slightly ‘off’ from the outset, they inevitably turn sour from here.
As he rushes back to town for his very own book launch party, Pan gets caught in an escalating cycle of ugly misunderstandings that, eventually, prevent him from meeting his self-aggrandising commitments. And it’s not to say he isn’t trying. It’s just that every one of his more or less ingenious attempts to save his skin is answered with more car crashes, gunfire, high kicks and heavy punches.
With its engine deliberately set to run idle, the film adopts a blatant gonzo style and mocking tone that aptly serve its underlying philosophical parable about a society which has gone completely off the rails, while pitch-black wit and occasional daredevil stunts ensure that one does not lose interest for too long. Visually compelling and suitably fitted with a boisterous Morricone-inspired score, No Man’s Land is, quite literally, a blast.