No Man’s Land (China, 2013) [NYAFF 2014]

The vicious events of No Man’s Land – which concerns a lawyer who finds his life in jeopardy after a run of altercations with poachers in a remote region – are only marginally more dramatic than those surrounding the film’s belated release. Shot back in 2009 by Ning Hao, who was then riding high off the success of the hugely profitable knockabout comedies Crazy Stone (2006) and Crazy Racer (2009), this neo-Western missed its planned 2010 release date because of censorship concerns over violent content, not to mention its extremely cynical view of contemporary Chinese society. Ning eventually shot another project – the more palatable period action-comedy Guns and Roses (2012) – which led to speculation that No Man’s Land would never see the light of day. However, the director never walked away, doggedly undertaking re-shoots and showing multiple cuts to the film bureau until he reached a version that the censors deemed suitable for public consumption. Given its tortuous journey to the screen, No Man’s Land is remarkably consistent in all departments, more so than Ning’s swiftly assembled comedies, with only some of the heavy-handed third act moralizing and a tacked-on epilogue serving as signs of official tampering. Ning’s perseverance was rewarded with decent box office returns when the film was finally released in China in December 2013.

Set almost entirely in a vast desert, No Man’s Land opens with a poacher (Huang Bo) trapping an endangered species of bird using a falcon only to be apprehended by a forestry policeman (Xiao Li). However, the felon is part of a larger trafficking operation, and his boss Lao (an imposing Duo Bujie) deals with the situation by smashing is vehicle into the police van, killing the arresting officer and telling his poacher to flee the scene. Lao is put on trial but freed based on a lack of evidence as a result of the slick defense of city lawyer Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng). Not wanting to endure a lengthy train journey to return to civilization, Pan takes Lao’s red Mustang as collateral against his fee and speeds off for home, but soon encounters trouble on the road: the arrogant Pan unwittingly instigates a feud with two truckers, then runs down the poacher and must decide what to do with the body. Stopping at a gas station for fuel, Pan is extorted by the proprietor (Yan Xinming) who expects an outrageous amount of money for a full tank on the basis that the price includes time with prostitute Jiaojiao (Yu Nan), who begs the lawyer to assist her escape from sexual slavery. Matters soon get so out of control that the menacing Lao comes to deal with the fallout in person.

Ning is the director who kicked-off the trend for shanzhai (clever imitation) comedy and, while it’s a darker proposition than his previous work, No Man’s Land also has a copycat feel about it. Gleefully cribbing from a number of Western models, Ning fashions a twist-filled narrative and a striking widescreen aesthetic, further fuelling the impression that his creative process largely consists of rifling through his bootleg DVD collection. The plot has elements that echo Oliver Stone’s desert noir U-Turn (1997), particularly the lawyer’s increasingly fraught dealings with the local mechanic, and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) in its use of a taciturn adversary with a twisted sense of logic. In addition, heavy doses of mordant humor come straight from the Quentin Tarantino playbook; Ning’s frenzied exploration of barren landscape suggests a fusion of Sergio Leone and Mad Max 2 (1981); and composer Nathan Wang is in thrall to the legacy of Ennio Morricone. On a localized level, No Man’s Land also seems to follow Gao Qunshu’s action-packed Windblast (2010) – both films are set in the Gobi desert and feature Yu in a supporting role – although this is a side-effect of the aforementioned delayed release as they were actually shot around the same time. Regardless of how much pilfering is going on, Ning somehow marshals these reference points and outright steals into a savage black comedy that can be called his own.

The moral landscape presented here is one marked by opportunism and self-serving behavior as neither representatives of urban or less-developed areas escape his wrath. Pan is a lot smarter than the hapless small-timers who usually feature in Ning’s madcap universe, but he’s been corrupted by the pursuit of fame and has no qualms about manipulating the law to suit his professional narrative, while the traffickers and those who eke out an existence on the desert highway are vilified for lacking any human decency. The truckers attempt to badger Pan by spitting on his windshield and then urinating in his vehicle, while he in turn sets fire to their load, justifying his retaliation through perceived social superiority. Yet the potentially overwhelming nihilism is kept at bay through the fast pace, and Ning’s penchant for absurdity, even in situations of extreme duress. This is also his most technically accomplished film to date, largely thanks to Due Jie’s superb cinematography which lends the dustbowl locations a feverish intensity during the daytime scenes and a desolate chill that recalls Blood Simple (1984) once night falls. It all builds to a thumping finale in a ghost town as everyone scrambles for survival, although re-shoots have made Pan’s actions more redemptive. A propulsive piece of storytelling with a cynically humorous kick, No Man’s Land has most definitely been well worth the wait.

No Man’s Land is showing on July 1 at the Walter Reade Theater. The full schedule for NYAFF 2014 can be found here.