Monday, June 30, 2014

NYAFF ’14: No Man’s Land

Dennis Weaver only had one psycho-semi to deal with in Duel. There are multiple parties of angry rustics-on-wheels out to drive Pan Xiao off the road—permanently. Of course, he sort of has it coming. He’s an attorney. Only the law of the jungle applies on this lonely stretch of Gobi Desert highway, but at least there is a socially redeeming coda tacked on to satisfy Chinese censors. Nevertheless, audiences can see most of the dark beast that is Ning Hao’s long delayed No Man’s Land (trailer here) when it screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

The hot shot big city attorney has come to represent Lao Da, a falcon poacher accused of murder. Of course, we know he is guilty, because we have seen the prologue. Nevertheless, Pan Xiao gets him off with a little Billy Flynn razzle dazzle. This was no mere charity case. Pan Xiao expects to get paid, so when Lao Da balks at ponying up cash on the barrelhead, the lawyer takes possession of his client’s shiny new Mustang instead. He really should have just used his return ticket on the train.

In fact, the counselor has been played by the poacher, who stashed a cache of falcons in the car and has a henchman waiting to waylay Pan Xiao. It is a good plan, but it did not anticipate the long-haul truckers the mouthpiece tangles with on his way out of town. Posing as a broken down motorist, Lao Da’s accomplice Lao Er is supposed to ambush the attorney once he has pulled over, but due to a cracked windshield, he plows over the his would-be assailant. Not knowing Lao Er’s intentions, Pan Xiao now believes he has a body to dispose of. However, stopping by a remote price-gauging gas station only makes matters worse, particularly when their trafficked lap dancer, Li Yuxin looks to Pan Xiao to be her rescuer.

That takes us about twenty minutes into the film. From there, things get very brutish, violent, and complicated. Nearly everyone wants to kill Pan Xiao and the cops are ready to assume the worst about him, after their embarrassment in court. Nonetheless, it is hard to see what activated the state censors’ schoolmarm reflexes, except maybe the pervasive nihilistic violence. Could they really be so concerned about the image of the legal profession or are they reluctant to admit the lurid truth regarding of falcon poaching?

After it was liberated from the vault, No Man’s Land set the Chinese box-office on fire, largely thanks to the presence of two stars from Lost in Thailand. Xu Zheng’s characters just do not travel well, but he plumbs hitherto unseen dark places as Pan Xiao. He is not a standard issue victim, by any stretch, but he cannot out-fierce steely Tibetan actor Duobujie’s Lao Da. Yu Nan (the only under-40 cast member of The Expendables 2) also adds some heat and a human touch as Li.

Even the approved-happy-happy cut of No Man’s Land is totally in-yer-face stuff, but we can only wait and hope for a straight no chaser director’s cut to trickle out. Regardless, it is hard to beat action director’s Bruce Law’s car-crashing survivalist mayhem. Highly recommended for genre fans who take their coffee black, No Man’s Land screens tomorrow (7/1) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.