Hailed as a triumph in Berlin and a throwback to 1940’s American film-noir, Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice is a simmering story of lust, murder and despair that comes to a boil in sparks of absurd brilliance. With a haunting performance from female lead Gwei Lun-Mei and the hard-boiled gumshoe trope nailed down perfectly by Liao Fan, Diao’s film is an auteur’s delight as it masterfully weaves many dark threads under the frigid desolation of Northern China.
In 1999, Detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is investigating a series of body parts being strewn about in coal shipments throughout the province. His team eventually identifies the victim and contact his wife, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), who happens to work in a local dry cleaning establishment. During a round-up of possible suspects however, Zhang is embroiled in a sudden gunfight reminiscent of a Kitano film and is heavily traumatized in the process. We flash forward to 2004 and find that Zhang is now a drunken security officer with no prospects on the horizon. However, things turn around for him as he suddenly finds himself immersed in a new case where Wu Zhizhen re-emerges as the central thread. These events soon draw Zhang into Wu’s life, where we watch the rest of the tale unravel under a cold veil of urban darkness.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is an amazing film with an array of merits. Every frame is unique in color and movement, where dynamism is enslaved by neon luminescence. The story itself is very simple (until we close in on the ending), but the emotions on display draw you in and never let go. The assured camerawork stalks our cast ever so slowly. providing an intimate yet surreal view into the proceedings. Furthermore, Northern China is a character unto its own as it plays off as both jailer and jester, setting the stage for scenes where the despair of our characters linger in the daytime frost, while their desires prowl under the alluring neon glow of the night. Reminiscent of Twin Peaks, Diao Yinan’s film expresses a duality of sorts that I find intriguing. White with snow yet black as coal, simple in scope yet confounding at times and full of both very real yet very surreal moments, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a revelation that celebrates the potential of Mainland Chinese film. Yet this celebration is given to a film that paints both a tragic and relevant portrait of urban fatalism which reveals so much, yet says so little. With the harshness of modern China in full view, Black Coal, Thin Ice reminds us that life is a cold nightmare, and that only the dreams of daylight fireworks can set us free.