“I’m just looking for something to do, so my life is not a total loss,” Zhang Zili (Fan Liao)
Weighed down by undeserved wins of the Golden Bear and Silver Bear (for actor Fan Liao), at the Berlin Film Festival 2014, one should negate those in an assessment of this slick Chinese neo-noir. Unencumbered by expectation, the meticulously shot detective thriller has a polish to catch the eye of genre aficionados.
1999, Northern China, body parts are gruesomely scattered across the province. Fifteen coal factories have unearthed dismembered limbs. At the same time, one last intimate coupling ends a marriage. Detective Sergeant Zhang Zili’s wife has ceremoniously gutted him emotionally. Hardly taking the mind off relationship woes, Zhang now has a murderer to catch. Like a child, he moodily kicks an empty beer bottle down a flight of steps into gloomy darkness. Unknown yet to Zili, and the audience, his life is about to analogously follow it.
Trucks and trains distribute coal around the region, and suspects are somehow narrowed. A fluorescent lighting soaked hair salon, so gaudily 1950s as to make the Jack Rabbit Slims diner in PULP FICTION appear restrained in comparison, are where the alleged perpetrators are seized. Spectacularly botched, the perps, and two detectives, are killed after seemingly being neutralised, and Zhang is badly wounded. One take, a fixed camera, the shot is breath-stopping in its abrupt choreography, which shocks in its slow unfurling. Protagonists, antagonists and audience can’t quite believe what just happened. Bleakly funny, it is typical of momentary moments of coal black humour (Geddit? Sorry not sorry.)
All of a sudden, snow. 2004, Zili is slumped drunkenly on a ramp as his motorcycle idles. Instead of coming to his aid, a passer-by steals said bike, leaving a relatively decrepit scooter in exchange. Zhang’s descent into a personal hell is a fascinating elision. Disgraced and no longer a cop, Zili is now to be found as a single, alcoholic, factory security guard. When murders, carried out in similar vein, begin again, Zhang seeks redemption in apprehending the culprit as a civilian. Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), a hauntingly beautiful and melancholic drycleaner, comes onto Zili’s radar. Femme fatale or innocent victim, (or boldly, both)?
For all of BLACK COAL, THIN ICE’s technical bravado (witness, for example, the sound design and atmospheric tension emanating from a scene involving an outdoor ice skating rink), the film hardly shifts into the necessary gear. Prerequisite of the genre greats, an oppressive charge is absent. Contrast Johnnie To’s DRUG WAR or Bong Joon-ho’s MEMORIES OF MURDER or David Fincher’s ZODIAC. Still, writer-director Diao Yinan is marked out as a talent to watch, especially with that crazily enigmatic ending.
BLACK COAL, THIN ICE almost asks a riveting question: How do you police vast and populace countries like China, Russia and India?