Tag Archives: Chinese cinema

No Man’s Land

No Mans Land
No Man’s Land

Director: Ning Hao

Writers: Ning Hao, Shu Ping, Xing Aina

Cast: Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo, Duo Bujie

Original title: Wu ren qu

China 2013

117 mins

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.

Pamela Jahn

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal Thin Ice
Black Coal, Thin Ice

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 June 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Diao Yinan

Writer: Diao Yinan

Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing

Original title: Bai ri yan huo

China 2014

106 mins

Diao Yinan’s disarming frozen noir begins in 1999 in northern China, where we follow the progress of a package mixed in with a coal delivery to a plant, where it is discovered to be a severed hand. Several other body parts are found in other coal shipments, and recently divorced mess-of-a-cop Zhang (Liao Fan) is part of a team called in to work the case. The investigation has barely started, however, before an attempted arrest at a beauty salon turns into an unholy clusterfuck that results in Zhang taking a bullet and losing his place on the force. In 2004 we find him a drunken wreck with a gig as security guard at a coal factory, when a chance encounter with an old colleague leads to his becoming entangled with the case again. With nothing else in his life to cling to, he quickly becomes obsessed, both with the investigation, and with the widow (Gwei Lun Mei) around whom it all seems to revolve…

While all the ingredients for a standard policer are present and correct, and plot wise, there’s nothing new here, Diao seems to take great delight in taking things apart and making them strange; it’s slow burning and snowbound and largely music-free. There’s an absence of Hollywood glamour, and everyone and everything looks a bit shabby and worn down. His femme fatale is skinny and passive and taciturn, unable to stop the unwelcome attentions of her boss at her unrewarding dry cleaning job. Our hero rides a crappy scooter after having his bike nicked. Following a police interview, a witness turns the corner of her residential block to find a horse in the corridor, in a typical scene that doesn’t advance the story much, but suggests a dysfunctional world of absurdity and neglect.

Visually, the film is extraordinary: the camera continually does unexpected things, the framing is unconventional, fights and shocking moments disappear off camera or appear in deadpan medium shots. The passage of time from 1999 to 2004 is accomplished in one majestic take, as we ride with Zhang’s car through a motorway tunnel to find him sprawled drunkenly on the other side. There’s a magically odd skating sequence where Zhang pursues the widow as she glides, impossibly smoothly, into the darkness, a Strauss waltz playing over Tannoy speakers. The days are harsh white, the nights taken over by yellow sodium and coloured neon.

All of this visual invention does not alter the conventional heart that beats at the centre of the narrative. There’s a hard-drinking cop, a woman who spells trouble, a killer to chase and a mystery to solve. But it does make Black Coal, Thin Ice engaging, and raises it a cut above the rest. There’s a mood of melancholy underlying the piece, a sense that justice may well be served, but love will be crushed along the way. Everybody seems to be lonely and lost and hurting, and this atmosphere, and the film’s off-kilter focus, make it linger in the memory.

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.