Notes from a pilot's kid

Film Review - No Man's Land (無人區)'s message to Chinese society

No Man's Land Screenshot'


8.1/10 on Douban

7.5/10 on IMDb, but <1000 reviews

Trailer from ChinaDaily

Set in desolate, empty Northwest China, Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land is a “neo-western” centered around a duo of rare bird poachers and the lawyer who saves one of them from jail by fabricating a story about the local police. The story builds when the lawyer re-negotiates his fees to be the keys to the acquitted poacher’s new car, which the poachers view as unfair. They conspire to get revenge on the lawyer during his long drive home back East, but before they have the chance the lawyer’s road rage leads him into trouble with some local farmers. This seemingly trivial trouble then causes the planned revenge to backfire as the lawyer accidentally kills the poacher who had set out to kill him. When deciding how to deal with the dead body now situated in the backseat of his car in the middle of the Northwest’s vast desert, the laywer is subject to his own taste of tricks and extortion by the owner of a lone gas station, where he also picks up an unexpected stowaway: the gas station owner’s purchased and abused wife. Selfishness, lawlessness, rage, and revenge dominate the rest of the story and continue to lead to unintended consequences, worse problems for everyone involved, and an increasing moral complexity of the plot. There is a hint of humanity in the story as the lawyer is eventually moved to try to protect the relatively helpless wife of the gas station owner from the mess she snuck herself into, but no one really wins in the end.

Ning Hao sends a bleak, strong message about Chinese society with this plot and set of characters. The desert is the obvious metaphor for today’s society, a moral wasteland where no traditions or social structure exist to hold people accountable for their actions. Everyone is out for their own personal gain, people can’t trust each other, and the rule of law can be ignored or bent with enough money or power. But although just like in the film such anarchy may sound like a rewarding challenge that can be won by the strongest or most clever, the story shows that life is not so simple, retribution is inevitable, and what really follows is chaotic and costly to society as a whole.

The parallels are probably unintentional, but it’s fair to compare this film with No Country for Old Men, another neo-western where the antagonist is portrayed as a new kind of villain who has no sense of human decency or honor. The villain destroys everything in his path in an attempt to recover a misplaced suitcase full of cash while being chased and battled by small-town Texas police officers from a more ‘civilized’ age and a simple hunter who stumbles upon the cash. But this story still provides the viewer two morally righteous protagonists to support as they battle an incomprehensible and new form of evil. In contrast, No Man’s Land lacks such straight-laced, fair, and trusting ‘old men’ protagonists in the story to challenge the modern world’s ruthless villains, nor even any simple-minded bystanders that put the villains’ lack of morality in perspective. In No Man’s Land (and as Ning Hao suggests of Chinese society), every character is either inclined or forced by circumstances to be as heartless, destructive, and selfish as No Country’s villain, and the only person left questioning the rules and morals of the dystopic society they’re shown is the viewer themself.