Black Coal, Thin Ice

Firstly, go check my review of Japanese classic “Kureneko” over at Easternkicks.com.  We are publishing a bunch of reviews for Christmas that are all Asian Ghost Stories.  Then like, come on back.  Please!

It’s been a long time since I have reviewed a film from Mainland China, but this one caught my eye a few weeks back.  I do love a Film Noir, and the idea of one with a distinctively modern Chinese feel really appealed.  The fact Gwei Lun-Mei has a starring role clearly added to the attraction.  However, I did notice that reactions to the film have been quite varied, from winning Festival Awards, to a fair bit of negative press.  So shall we see where I land myself along this thin line of love and hate?

Yi’nan Diao’sBlack Coal, Thin Ice” opens in 1999, in a Northern Chinese Industrial Town.  Body parts start appearing in coal processing parts all across the region.  Recently divorced detective Zhang (Liao Fan) and his men follow-up on a tip to a local hairdressing salon, only to be involved in a fatal shootout.  Zhang is badly injured, causing him to leave the Police and wallow in an alcoholic daze for the next 5 years.  When another set of remains appears his old colleague shares the information with him, and Zhang starts to investigate on his own, though whether it is for closure or redemption, it is never quite clear.  Linking the cases is Laundry shop employee Wu (Gwei Lun-Mei) who appears to at the very least to have the misfortune to have every man who is romantically linked with her wind up dead (her husband was the original victim).  Zhang decides to investigate Wu, and his clumsy attempts at detective work not only get him closer to solving the mysteries, but also to Wu herself.  Zhang though is in danger from a mysterious interloper, and even when the case is finally solved, he soon realises there is much more to be uncovered.

Many have called this film a “Film Noir”, which is a little problematic, as it isn’t a definition that can be easily agreed upon, some preferring some kind of visual style, others concentrating on themes of moral bankruptcy.  If we are to take some common threads of a broken “hero” and the existence of a potentially criminal “Femme Fatale”, then I think this is a reasonable pigeon-hole for this film.  Visually the film is impressive, not because of any great style or camera tricks, but because of the carefully composed shots, and a real sense of place and time the film engenders.  Setting the film in the cold reaches of Heilongjiang province is perfect for echoing the cold and empty characters we meet, as well as giving us the stark opposite visuals of the Black (Coal) and White (Ice).  This is a China a million miles away from the glossy modern Beijing that tends to be concentrated on in much Asian Cinema, as well as the Halcyon views of rural countryside life.  It reminded me somewhat of the original “Get Carter”, which set itself in Northern England, a very different and harder place than swinging London.  The locations also reminded me a lot of “Fargo”

Liao Fan is great as our “hero”, even if he does not actually speak much.  When we meet him he is on the edge of a breakdown anyway, but he remains at all times a character of many shades of grey – there is no real redemption for him here, and he is clearly a complete d**k.  But yet we still root for him, and follow his investigations.  Gwei Lun-Mei gives a quiet, understated performance, but I think it is her casting, rather than her performance which is unimportant.  The actress is actually Taiwanese, and visually does not look or act at all like someone from the far North of the Chinese Mainland (some commentators have been distracted by her accent for example).  But this is almost the point – she is different, she is an outsider, she is suspicious.  She isn’t the sexy Femme Fatale, but she is intriguing and clearly dangerous.

Pace will be an issue for some.  Along with a minimalist score (with a fair number of Mandarin pop tunes played through tinny speakers) this is a movie which looks and feels far more indie/art house than most modern Chinese films.  There are many scenes that take their time to play out (like when Zhang has his motorbike stolen), which could be prohibitively slow for many to put up with.  On the other hand the hypnotic mood and slow unravelling I actually found to be one of the films most attractive qualities.

The plot is almost unimportant.  The discovery of the bodies is somewhat gruesome, but actually the murderer is fairly clear from very early on in the film, and only a bunch of red herrings pad things out and conspire to confuse the audience.  This does lead to maybe a sense of disappointment for those of us that like a mystery – even when the perpetrator is finally unmasked, we are given a spoken confession rather than get to understand what actually went on from clues alone.  Then we have the ending, where the film descends into an almost surreal coda – and whilst it helps make sense of the “Daylight Fireworks” that form the chinese title of the film, I can’t help feeling that I wished for a little more closure.

In terms of mood and style I liked this film a lot.  But similarly I can totally see why many have been unimpressed or even bored by the movie.  What I do feel is that it is an interesting and well-acted piece, that offers something a little different from the usual Mainland fare.  Would I watch it again?  Probably not, but I think it is worthy of an adjectiveless Recommended.

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