Winner of Best Experimental Film at First Film Festival, “The Honor Among Thieves” is a very interesting production that tests the limits of our preconception of what cinema is, through a rather unique approach that juxtaposes the traditional with the contemporary, in a 50-minute silent movie.
The film is based on a Chinese short story written during the Ming Dynasty by Feng Menglong, titled “Song the Fourth Greatly Torments Tightwad Zhang” which was first published in 1620. The original story focuses on four thieves who are up against a wealthy evil miser and the corrupted local government, and the film follows in the same footsteps by placing the narrative in contemporary times. The film is split into acts (in essence a series of vignettes) with the first one introducing the villains, the rest the four thieves and the path that led them together, to the deeds that forced the government to cooperate with the rich and a number of bounty hunters in order to catch them, to the conclusion that leaves no one unpunished.
The rather original narrative includes passages from the original presented in the way of the silent movies, through frames that just feature the text on screen, and also includes elements of Chinese opera, particularly in the music and the costumes, theater, and performance arts who are combined in a very interesting fashion to create a compact whole. DoP Yi Jingkai’s framing uses static backgrounds featuring contemporary settings like abandoned buildings and factories, and train wagons, with the movement being mostly reserved for the foreground, which follows the traditional elements I just mentioned. With this tactic he creates something that looks like stop motion animation but is actually much different. Ma Lanhua’s purpose seems to be to tell a traditional story from a completely new cinematic perspective, and in that regard, I would say she succeeds to the fullest.
The comments about crime and punishment, the corruption of the government through its cooperation with the capital, and the vile ways of the rich are quite evident, despite the experimental approach. At the same time, Lanhua implements much humor, as in the case of the hunter of the thieves being a dwarf or the thieves being angry on the rich man for contributing too little in the amount for their arrest, in a rather ironic fashion, that is quite entertaining. Furthermore, this sense of humor also seems to derive from the movement of the actors, which reminded me much of Charlie Chaplin’s style.
describing and reviewing experimental films is one of the hardest things a film
critic can do, so I will end my review at this, just by saying that the film
definitely deserves a watch.