10:59 - 11th August 2015, by David West

Black Coal Thin Ice

In 1999, Detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is investigating a murder case in which body parts from the same corpse have simultaneously turned up at coal power plants miles and miles apart from each other. The badly botched arrest of the prime suspects results in both Zhang getting shot and a pile of fresh corpses, including two of his colleagues. In the aftermath, he is dismissed from the force.

Five years later, he’s working as a security guard in a factory and generally wandering around in a drunken haze when more dismembered bodies appear, scattered around the province. The only lead is that the dead men had all been romantically involved with Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), an attractive but withdrawn woman who works at Rong Rong Laundry. So Zhang starts to follow her, but becomes increasingly attracted to her in the process, much to the concern of his old colleague Detective Wang (Yu Ailei).

Director Diao Yinan’s thriller is a classic film noir story presented in a stark, naturalistic manner. The noir genre is usually associated with dramatic shadows, high contrast lighting, tough cops, and glamourous, deadly dames with plunge necklines. Instead of those traditional motifs, Diao serves up the bleak backdrop of contemporary industrial China in all its grey, concrete sterility. Further compounding the frostiness at the heart of the film, most of the tale unfolds during winter with everything covered in snow and ice. Wu Zhizhen is undeniably beautiful, but she is invariably bundled up against the freezing weather in jumpers, coats and scarves rather than languidly reclining in smoky nightclubs with jazz playing in the background. The romantic scenes between the two leads are disconcertingly detached, rather than smouldering with barely contained passion. There might be physical joining, but there’s no sense of two people connecting emotionally in any of the (non-explicit) sex scenes. Likewise, Zhang is not your hard-as-nails noir protagonist, and Diao refuses to glamourize or enhance the violence in the story. The botched arrest attempt that ends Zhang’s police career is witnessed at arm’s length, the camera maintaining a carefully neutral position, simply presenting the sudden deaths of the participants in a detached, matter of fact style. And Zhang’s shocked reaction keeps the drama firmly grounded. He has no witty quips to diminish the event he has witnessed; he’s too badly shaken to speak. Dumped by his wife and stuck in his dead-end job, Zhang sees the chance to solve the murders as offering a shot at redemption. “I’m just looking for something to do so my life isn’t a total loss,” he tells Wang. There’s a comparison to be drawn with the Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni, whose existentialist films similarly favoured washed out colour schemes, sudden and unanticipated bursts of violence, and characters unable to form real emotional connections with one another, even when they longed to do so. Likewise, Jia Zhangke’s equally bleak A Touch Of Sin taps into a similar vein of contemporary Chinese noir, although Jia’s movie is much more explicitly concerned with the callousness and inequality of modern China. Diao, by contrast, seems to be primarily interested in exploring the possibilities of the noir genre and weaving his web of intrigue, rather than critiquing his country. Proving the film’s noir credentials, the China of Black Coal is an amoral one. Zhang may be chasing a murderer, but he’s certainly no saint and his actions in the finale are anything but ethical.

Diao’s directorial style is low key but still allows him room to create memorable images. There is a superb transition to mark the passage of time after Zhang’s dismissal from the force, as the viewer goes from travelling inside a car with Zhang to finding him slumped in a drunken stupor by the side of the road as the season changes from the heat of summer to a snowbound winter. Dong Jingsong’s photography may not be flashy, but it immerses the viewer in the chilly embrace of a northern Chinese winter and earned him the cinematography prize at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Gwei Lun-Mei projects an air of mystery as the woman whose lovers all wind up dismembered. Even without the trappings of the femme fatale, there is constant sense that she is holding something back, burdened by her past. There is a revealing sequence when Zhang and Wu go ice skating on a date. Instead of gliding gracefully together hand-in-hand, Zhang struggles to keep up with Wu, constantly trailing after her, never quite catching her. It’s an effective metaphor for their relationship and for Zhang’s pursuit of the elusive truth behind the murders. The plotting is quite dense and to follow all the twists and turns does require paying attention or to risk being left behind. But all credit to Diao for crafting an intricate tale, particularly in making it look like the mystery has been solved when there is still one more dark secret waiting to be dragged unwillingly out into the cold light of day.

Music is used sparingly, and is generally only present when it’s motivated within the scene. When music does appear it’s hardly an expression of unadulterated joy – during a sequence in which Zhang dances in a music studio, he looks like a man desperate to lose himself even if it’s only for a moment. Perhaps what draws the disgraced ex-cop to Wu Zizhen may be the fact that they both carry their pasts with them, and neither of them wants to talk about it.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is a twisting ride through a physically and emotionally cold landscape that is anchored by a clever script, and strong performances from Liao Fan and Gwei Lun-Mei. The ending is a little impenetrable, even with the knowledge that the Chinese title translates as Daytime Fireworks, but Diao Yinan has crafted a mystery well worth solving.
SCORE: 4/5
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