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No Man's Land

No Man's Land     No Man's Land   

(left) Huang Bo, and (right) Xu Zheng meet up in No Man's Land.

Chinese: 無人區
Year: 2013  
Director: Ning Hao
Producer: Ning Hao, Yu Weiguo, Lin Fanxi
Writer: Shu Ping, Xing Aina, Cui Siwei, Wang Hongwei, Shang Ke, Ning Hao
Action: Bruce Law Lai-Yin
Cast: Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Duo Bujie, Huang Bo, Wang Shuangbao, Sun Jianmin, Huang Jingyi, Wang Hui, Yan Xinming, Guo Hong, Wang Pei, Zhao Hu, Tao Hong, Ning Hao
The Skinny: Ning Haoís long-delayed film is a western homage set in the Northern China desert and featuring more lousy people than your last family reunion. Itís also very entertaining and very smart, with great storytelling and an archly dry wit. Not completely perfect but way better than most audiences probably deserve.
by Kozo:
Ning Haoís long-delayed dimsum western (or ďeastern,Ē if thatís the term you prefer) No Manís Land blazes to the screen as a well-made, dryly funny genre film that was worth the wait. Shot in 2009, the film ended up in SAPPRFT approval hell until late 2013, when it was released in China before going to Hong Kong in 2014. Frequent Ning collaborator Xu Zheng, sporting hair and looking a lot svelter than usual, stars as Pan Xiao, an arrogant lawyer who gets whatís coming to him plus a whole lot that isnít. When we first meet him, heís travelling through desolate Northwest China to defend Boss (Duo Bujie), an ominously threatening hardass with a Mad Max-like leg brace. Boss is on trial for the vehicular manslaughter of a policeman, and the sneaky Pan Xiao gets him quickly acquitted. However, Boss doesnít have the money for Pan Xiaoís lawyer fees just yet, so Pan Xiao takes Bossí car as temporary collateral and drives off, cackling at his courtroom win and basically being a super dick.

Unfortunately, Pan Xiaoís drive through the Northern China desert becomes a crucible of bad people, bad karma and just plain bad luck. Pan Xiao gets into a conflict with a pair of truck drivers (Wang Shuangbao and Sun Jianmin), which results in a foolhardy case of road rage; has a very unfortunate encounter with Bossí subordinate Underling (Huang Bo), which sends Pan Xiao into a state of panic; and finally stops at an outpost, only to have the outpost owners try to rip him off because they claim to sell the only gas for the next 400 kilometers. The owners also charge him an exorbitant fee that automatically includes a private dance by the sultry Jiaojiao (Yu Nan), a dance student whoís working there against her will. All this occurs plus the return of Boss, who has unfinished business with Pan Xiao Ė but by then Pan Xiao is a wreck and has thoroughly received his comeuppance. All he can do now is suck it up, stop the bleeding from that gunshot he took, and somehow become a good guy.

The over-arching story of No Manís Land involves the poaching of some rare birds by Boss and Underling, but they serve mostly as a MacGuffin. Primarily, the story is about Pan Xiaoís spiraling descent and his change from unrepentant ass to anti-hero. Itís a transformation thatís hard to completely buy, especially given his initial jerky behavior and the scriptís lack of psychological underpinning, but Ning Hao sets up the action so well Ė and makes Pan Xiao so pitiable and pathetic Ė that it becomes easy to root for him to do right. No Manís Land uses the rising action to establish Pang Xiaoís character and to sell his personality change, by first showing his bemused disregard for conflict, then his growing paranoia and finally his resigned acceptance of his fate. There are some repetitive moments along the way, but each scene impacts the next cleverly and Ning Haoís storytelling is strong. The direction and mise-en-scene work as POV, putting the audience into Pan Xiaoís shoes, and the desaturated color landscapes, framed vividly in widescreen, add to the sense of desolation and lawlessness.

Ning Hao also uses exaggeration and absurdities to sell his archly comic genre setting. No Manís Land isnít a straight western homage, but one that acknowledges its inspirations while having its own self-amused fun. The trumpet-and-acoustic guitar score adds knowing western atmosphere Ė even rising to a crescendo as Pan Xiao literally rides to the rescue Ė while utilizing deadpan wit and a revolving door of clever plot turns to consistently surprise. The actors are cartoonish in appearance but their actual performances are controlled, and nobody does more or less than the film requires. The only false step No Manís Land makes is its coda, which adds routine closure to one characterís story while implying deeper emotional significance than is required of such a spare, sharp piece of entertainment. The scene does put a more ďhumanĒ face on the film, but it ultimately feels disingenuous because Ning Hao movies arenít known for their humanity. Ningís films are celebrated as whip smart, cleverly crafted genre spins, and No Manís Land is a more than worthy addition to that fraternity. (Kozo, 9/2015)

Availability: DVD (China)
Region 0 NTSC
De Jin Culture
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable Chinese Subtitles
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