“Black Coal, Thin Ice” has become one of the most talked about Chinese films of the last year following its impressive Golden Bear win at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. Director Diao Yinan is certainly no stranger to the festival circuit, his previous outings “Uniform” and “Night Train” both having gone down well with international critics, and his latest sees him attempting to fuse his own grounded social realism style with genre cinema. The result is a fascinating take on the neo noir form, following a down and out cop trying to track down a killer against a background of snow, ice and plenty of angst.
The detective in question is the bitter, recently divorced Zhang Zili (Liao Fan, “Ocean Flame”), the film opening in 1999 in a town in Heilongjiang province, north-east China with the gruesome discovery of the body parts of a man, scattered across the local county. Though he and his colleague Wang (Yu Ailei, “Tian Liang Qing Zheng Yan”) apprehend a suspect, everything goes wrong, and after the death of two fellow officers Zhang is suspended. Five years later a similar series of murders occur, and Zhang, now working as a lowly security guard and spending most of his time drunk, again teams with Wang to try and finally hunt down the culprit. Their investigation leads them to Wu Zhizhen (Guey Lun Mei, “GF*BF”), the widow of the 1999 victim, who now works in a small laundrette and who had a connection to all the murdered men. Convinced of her involvement, Zhang starts to follow her around, though finds himself entering into a tense relationship with the mysterious woman, putting himself in danger and complicating the case.
Originality is obviously not the strongest aspect of “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, all the time-honoured motifs, themes and clichés of the noir form being present and correct, from the traumatised male lead and alluring femme fatale through to the pervading air of suspicion and of things not being what they seem. Where Diao Yinan succeeds is in the way in which he marries such traditional cinematic tropes with his own concerns and techniques, transforming an industrial, constantly snowbound north-eastern Chinese town into a bleak landscape of uncertainty where it’s quite clear that unpleasantness and violence are never far away. In visual terms this works fantastically well, Diao and his cinematographer Dong Jinsong (“11 Flowers”) making superb use of lurid neon colours and sinister shadows, giving the film a distinctive look that’s at once both minimalist and luridly pulp. The film is extremely atmospheric throughout, the viewer almost being able to feel the biting cold and the crunching snow underfoot, and Diao skilfully accentuates this to underline further the dark mood.
Diao’s driving aim here is to make the film as realistic and grounded as possible while entertaining in the usual genre style, and this is achieved, to an extent at least, through some well-written and interesting characters. While neither Zhang Zili and Wu Zhizhen really transcend their noir stereotypes, they’re both reasonably believable, and the script wisely keeps their relationship as icy as the scenery, helping to make for a fair amount of tension. Both Liao Fan and Guey Lun Mei turn in strong performances, the former winning the Berlin Silver Bear for Best Actor for his efforts, and this helps keep the viewer interested in their predictable dance despite being kept deliberately at an emotional distance by Diao.
The fact that any noir fans will likely know from early on where the film is going does undermine its effectiveness and suspense somewhat, and the plot in general is rather standard and straightforward, even by the standards of the form, finding a familiar rhythm after a more oddball first half hour. Though complex enough, the film’s red herrings are all obvious, and without any real final twist or surprises, on a narrative level it engages rather than impresses, even when rallying for its suitably downbeat conclusion. To be fair, Diao does seem aware of, and indeed unconcerned by this, and compensates to an extent through inserting a few wilfully impenetrable moments (most notably a tacked on final sequence, which though thematically fitting, at least in terms of the film’s literal Chinese title “Daylight Fireworks”, doesn’t really add much), whose effectiveness will vary according to the viewer’s taste and patience, and as a result the film does at times feel like an experiment in combining two very different types of cinema. As with so many recent Mainland Chinese films, there’s a temptation to try and dig deeper and look for socio-political themes and criticism, though beyond the obvious meditation on human life becoming more disposable in modern China, and on relationships and communication between people breaking down, there’s not a great deal going on, and Diao certainly doesn’t seem as angry, scathing or as willing to delve as deeply as Jia Zhangke did in his far more provocative “A Touch of Sin”.
Still, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” only really invites such criticisms and comparisons due to its Berlin win, and it’s certainly several notches above the vast majority of other Chinese genre films. Though as a neo noir it’s undeniably flawed, there much here to enjoy and to be impressed by, and Diao Yinan has done a fine job of producing a film which, whilst generic, succeeds in bringing together two different strands of cinema in complementary fashion.
Yi’nan Diao (director)/Yi’nan Diao (writer)
CAST: Fan Liao … Zhang Zili
Lun Mei Gwei … Wu Zhizhen
Xuebing Wang … Liang Zhijun