Berlin 2014: ‘No Man’s Land’ review


Presumably conceived as an homage to the Italian westerns of Sergio Leone and perhaps the most dire inclusions in this year’s somewhat lacklustre Berlinale Competition strand, Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land (2014) is a smash and grab attempt to appeal to the English-speaking audiences. However, whilst Leone evoked a sense of epic grandeur and developed pathos for its characters, Hao’s noodle western is a strident hodgepodge of Tarantino-style violence and ridiculous car chases seemingly desperate to attract the attention of the US film market. A Stateside remake already seems like a depressing inevitability.

Somewhere in the arid Taklamakan desert, a nameless poacher hides as he lures a falcon out of the sky. This is a film about animals, he tells us; in spite of our cognitive and moral evolution, we’re all just dirty creatures rolling around in the excrement of a world built on greed and selfishness. The survivalist qualities that reside within humanity are explored via lawyer Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng). He’s dispatched to this secluded region to defend a rustler arrested for the illegal sale of falcons. Winning the case with relative ease, this arrogant young lawyer takes the accused’s car as collateral for his future payment. On Xiao’s journey home, a heated altercation with a truck driver snowballs into an unrelenting tornado of violence.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival has been Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West – an abstract adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel, Monkey. Whilst Tsai’s experimental piece acted as a critique on the rapidly quickening tempo of life and a rebellious appraisal on the dwindling attention spans of cinema audiences, Hao’s ‘Journey to the West(ern)’ is the apex of everything Journey to the West is in opposition to; a brazenly brainless onslaught of brutality with a blatant disregard for the audience’s intelligence and with scant respect for the genre it’s attempting to comply by. As with any film singularly intent on cranking up the adrenaline until its audience can take no more, the torrent of blood and rattling of mangled car chassis eventually has an anaesthetising effect.

Nothing more than a collection of crudely drawn characters we’ve invested very little in, Hao’s No Man’s Land is an acultural, soulless and state-funded Chinese hack job that lacks any distinctive qualities or sense of national identity, despite its setting in the country’s western Uyghur region. The film’s sepia desert shot to the strains of warbling Spanish guitars may be a slick exercise in genre filmmaking, but it all feels completely impersonal – more like a video pitch for an inevitable Hollywood duplication than the singular vision of an artistic director.

The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble