At its most innocuous, whether people are basically good or bad is only an opinion. At its most harmful, though, believing either way is representative of one’s perception of the world. If one trusts that the world is without thieves, dumb luck may keep misfortune at bay, but there is no guarantee that negative consequences will not affect one’s life in some way. Feng Xiao-Gang’s film “A World Without Thieves” (2004) plays with this idea in a story that pits thief against thief, and common sense against innocence.
Inspired by a Zhao Ben-Fu novel, “A World Without Thieves” follows Wang Bo (Andy Lau) and Wang Li (Rene Liu), two con artist-thieves who unintentionally undertake their last job. After blackmailing a wealthy Mainland business man out of a BMW, they head into the countryside and Wang Li meets Dumbo (Wang Yu-Qiang), a young temple restorer who is headed home. Coincidentally, they all end up on the same train and Wang Li informs Wang Bo that they must keep a watchful eye over Dumbo…and his 60,000 yuan. They don’t necessarily guard their peasant friend for the same reasons, but what they both agree on is that the money should not fall into the hands of another crew of thieves led by Uncle Li (Ge You). Throughout the duration of the train ride, Wang Bo and Uncle Li’s henchmen play a game of one-upmanship until twist upon plot twist—one that involves an undercover cop—culminates in a bittersweet finish.
“A World Without Thieves” is less comedic than Feng’s 2001 film “Big Shot’s Funeral,” but still carries the same kind of examination of human heart and soul (or lack thereof). Wang Li is tired of her lifestyle, the deception, and the commensurate running and eluding of law enforcement agencies. More importantly, though, her desire to lead a normal life stems from fear of karmic retaliation (and as the film reveals, she has a very valid reason to want to be a good person for a change). Wang Bo, however, is more interested in impressing Uncle Li’s gang with his fast hands and split-second reactions. The juxtaposition of contrasting intent between the two Wangs sets up solid tension and lends to periodic bursts of kinetic editing. Director Feng stays away from stylistic Hong Kong action, but when both sets of thieves display their sleight-of-hand tricks, the camera picks up momentum and cuts more frequently to highlight the rapidity of this specialized theft.
These spurts of “tricks” do not detract from or clash with the seriousness of the film’s theme. Feng keeps “A World Without Thieves” grounded in Dumbo, poster child of naiveté but also hope. His outlook on life is inadvertently at the expense of the Wangs, who see to it that he has the luxury to keep living in a world without thieves.