Dispatches From Fantastic Fest: No Man’s Land
No Man’s Land plays like a Sichuan version of Jim Thompson (with a soupcon of James M. Cain). It begins as a fairly standard story of an amoral lawyer who receives some long due comeuppance along a desolate desert road between his urban home and the rural province that his client hails from. Pan Xiao, gets a rural gangster acquitted for poaching and the murder of a policeman. After commandeering the car of his client in lieu of payment, the lawyer starts his journey across the desert where he encounters extortionist gas station owners, prostitutes, poachers, thugs, undead gangsters, unfriendly locals, crime bosses, biased policemen and other impediments to his living a long and happy life. Things escalate quickly.
Some have compared director Hao Ning to the Coen brothers and while the dark humor, hair pin plot turns and lattice of coincidence that ensnares its protagonist make it easy to see where the comparisons are coming from, it’s a bit too heavy for the film to bear. It bears a closer relationship to something like Jo Nesbo’s Headhunter. Less a harrowing crime story, more like an R rated Looney Tunes cartoon.
What Ning brings to the film, is a dry color palate and a sharp edge of absurdity. Xiao turns what should be a simple drive across the desert into a slog through hell through a mixture of macho posturing, stupidity and good old fashioned hubris. Ning paces the film with care, gradually escalating the mayhem until it overwhelms the protagonist, reducing him from a cold operator to a sputtering wreck, unable to ever quite believe his rotten luck. When you end up with a dead body in your backseat and a prostitute in your trunk I think it’s fair to say that things have gone terribly wrong.
No Man’s Land manages to remain propulsive and unpredictable and with a genuine edge and sense of comic anarchy that does not negate its nasty edge. It has a dark a sense of humor and a propulsive sense of momentum. Ning frames the film with a sharp sense of style; blocking his characters against the harsh expanses of wilderness. In one of the best shots of the film the young lawyer watches the desert waste give way to a small way station. Only to belated realize that the sight of people is not always a comforting one.
If No Man’s Land is ultimately a bit too arch to truly qualify as a great crime film it succeeds as a thoroughly entertaining one. It offers a thick atmosphere, an air of desolate exoticism and a genuine sense of unpredictability. Sometimes that’s all you need.