Fantastic Fest Review: 'No Man's Land' a Bizarre, Badass Blockbuster
by Jeremy Kirk
September 25, 2014
An oblivious, big-city lawyer gets in over his head in No Man's Land, a neo-western thriller directed by Ning Hao. The film, shot in 2009, sat on a shelf of censorship as the Chinese government deemed it too "nihilistic." To this, the Fantastic Fest crowd, who got their first look at No Man's Land, said, "Yeah, what's the big deal?" What ends up being the big deal is that the film is as smart as it is cool, a deliberately paced trek into the Gobi Desert with a handful of badass trimmings and a nice, rustic fringe. It's the kind of quirky actioner with even quirkier characters that's getting comparisons to the Coen Brothers, and for good reason.
That big-city lawyer, played by Xu Zheng, is just trying to look out for his client, a falcon poacher (Duo Bujie) who's been accused of murdering a cop. The lawyer gets his client out of immediate trouble, but without the money to pay him, the client offers up his vehicle as collateral for which the lawyer can take to get back to that big-city life in Beijing. Needless to say, the road trip doesn't take him home, but instead into the arms of a cavalcade of peculiar and sometimes extremely violent characters. Dust, rubber, and much bloodshed is about to be kicked up.
Though No Man's Land takes some time shifting into 2nd gear - after a rather exhilarating opening sequence - the promise of electrifying action is ever-present. That's not to say the film's first act is boring, quite the contrary, but the screenplay - co-written by Ning as well as Shu Ping and Aina Xing - takes all the time it needs establishing the pieces in this game of cat-and-mouse and the perilous board on which it's to be played. The characters aren't as black-or-white as the classic Westerns of yesteryear, but the grayness between that permeates every individual in this film adds to the violent and dusty world in which it's set.
Ning fills the landscape with a minimalist eye, the desert serving its purpose as an entire character all on its own. The depth he adds to every shot paints some masterful imagery made all the more exciting when the guns start blazing and the gas-guzzlers start revving their engines. There's as much Coen Brothers to be found in No Man's Land as there is George Miller or even Sergio Leone. While all of those visionary directors give you an idea of what's on display here, the meticulously structured narrative and unexpected jolts of action keep Ning's film in a category all on its own.
Yu Nan as a prostitute in which Xu's lawyer befriends could have definitely been developed more. Her character isn't given much of a role other than the damsel in distress, but even this flaw in the film serves the Western aesthetic to a tee. A string-and-brass musical score by Nathan Wang has its foothold strongly in place in the mix, the villain a classic depiction of the black-clad gunslinger. The metal brace he wears over one boot is a minute but nice touch.
No Man's Land feels a tad too long, stretched-out in certain parts, but the arid background and even drier humor peppered throughout keep everything firmly within the viewer's interest. You also know you're never too far off from an incredibly daring and awesome action sequence. No Man's Land is a near-flawless wrong-man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time thriller, Xu's lawyer finding the strength within himself to stand up to the dangerous crazies he encounters in the desert a little later than justified. Regardless, his performance is exceptional, and this, too, serves the film's finale when the real neo-Western offerings are served up. Come to No Man's Land because you're finally given the opportunity, stay in No Man's Land for a little while because it's genuinely badass.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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