In the opening scene of “No Man’s Land”, we hear voice-over as a falcon swoops down upon another bird on an arid and foreboding plateau somewhere in Northwest China surrounded by mountains. The narrator, a lawyer who is the film’s anti-hero, tells us that in ancient times two monkeys decided to cooperate with each other. One would serve as a sentry against tigers, while the other would gather up peaches that the two would share. That act of cooperation led to an increase in the monkey kingdom, to the point where they became homo sapiens.
As this is being explained to us, a man pops up from beneath a pit beneath the ground and begins reeling in the falcon that has been snared by the bird left there as bait. We eventually learn that he is a poacher bent on selling falcons to Arab oil sheiks that domesticate them for hunting other birds.
Thus is established the primary message of a Chinese film that is a perfect blend of politics and action. On one level, the “no man’s land” is a remote area far from the nearest city. On another level, it is China today—a land of criminality, corruption and greed that is a rejection of that primal pact of cooperation made between our legendary monkey ancestors.
Shortly after the poacher begins headed toward the nearest city with his caged falcon, he is intercepted by a game warden who puts him under arrest. As they are headed down the road with poacher and bird in the back seat, a massive pickup truck broadsides them, killing the cop. The driver of the pickup is a poacher himself who will use murder as a means to ill-gained profits.
After the second poacher is arrested for killing the cop, he hires a lawyer from the big city, the same man whose words we heard at the beginning of the film and who is a perfect symbol of China’s new middle-class. He is banking on the possibility that a victory in court will catapult him into the top rank of his profession. After he successfully defends his client, the lawyer—one Pan Xiao—presents him with a bill for services rendered. Duobuji, the poacher, tells him that he will pay up in 10 days. Since the lawyer probably understood that his client was a murdering scumbag to begin with and not likely to pay up, he demands immediate satisfaction or else he would go to the cops. Duobuji offers him his red sedan as collateral, which was as near to hard cash as he would get from the villain except for the pirated falcon.
As he tools down the highway in the middle of nowhere headed back to civilization, the lawyer runs into one misadventure after another, always revolving around the poacher’s attempt to get back his car or various road rage incidents that make California look like a Quaker meeting by comparison. In most cases, it was the cynical and self-serving lawyer who triggered the other driver’s rage.
This is a road movie that evokes any number of other films, starting with the Mad Max series. However, director Ning Hao, who also wrote the screenplay, was not interested in a dystopian future. He is describing the China of today, taking artistic liberties but not that far from the reality:
A scooter rider in China is lucky to be alive after being repeatedly rammed for seemingly no reason by an angry motorist.
Video of the incident shows the driver of the car speeding towards the rider on a busy road, before ramming into it.
After successfully hitting the bike, the driver then swerves his car and again aims at the rider.
The film also suggests that the Coen brothers have influenced Ning Hao since the mix of homicide and bone-dry humor is cut from the cloth of films like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo”. There are also signs that he has absorbed the Spaghetti Western genre since his scenes of the northwest China desert and the mayhem that takes place within it have more than a whiff of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” as one villain after another fight over the falcon like it was a box of silver stolen from a stagecoach.
“No Man’s Land” was made in 2009 but it was not released for theatrical distribution until 2013. Even though it might appear superficially as a noirish comedy about dirt-bags, the authorities figured out that the film was really about Chinese society. The censors objected to a film with so many “depraved” individuals and “accused Ning of nihilism and forgetting his social responsibility as a film director.” I would say that Ning Hao had social responsibility in abundance. That is why his film was suppressed for 4 years.
I have a very high regard for Ning Hao and recommend an earlier film titled “Mongolian Ping-Pong” that is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming on Fandor, an arthouse counterpart to Netflix. Like “No Man’s Land”, it has a poetic grasp of the beauty of the desert and mountains of that part of the world.
In April 2014, Oliver Stone made a trip to China to meet with the country’s leading filmmakers, including Ning Hao. Stone berated them for not having his guts. Why didn’t they take on Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution? Ning Hao shot back, calling Stone “belligerent” and reminding him that steps toward free speech in China must be taken “step by step”.
One hopes that “No Man’s Land” can be distributed nationally in the USA before long. It is first-rate filmmaking. For New Yorkers, I urge you to attend tonight’s screening just to make sure that you can catch it. If you have found my film reviews reliable over the years, I can assure you that this is 4-star entertainment as well as a powerful critique of Chinese society. You can’t ask for much more than that.