BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (Bai ri yan huo) B-
China (106 mi) 2014 d: Diao Yinan
China (106 mi) 2014 d: Diao Yinan
A serial killer thriller set in modern era China, winner of the Golden Bear 1st prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival along with another award for Best Actor (Fan Liao), the film is part film noir and part social realist portrait of industrial city life in Northern China. While it has a moody, quietly powerful style, this is another film that lucks subtlety, that goes for exaggerated often grotesque performances, that veers from gruesome violence, comic absurdity, to utter tragedy, where the lead performance is excellent, but the amateurish supporting cast comes across like a group of bumbling fools. Set in Heilongjiang province, northeast China, 1999, where small-town chief detective Zhang Zili (Fan Liao) discovers detached body parts spread out in unusual places, initially discovered at a coal plant where the human limbs stand out among the dark chunks of coal assembled on an industrial conveyor belt. More remains of the same body are discovered at other coal plants miles away, suggesting the work of a single killer. The personal identification on the body turns out to be Liang Zhijun (Wang Xuebing), a worker of the local coal plant whose wife Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-mei) works at a small dry cleaning shop run by an older man, He Mingrong (Wang Jingchun), who seems to watch over her like a hawk. When Zhang produces two suspects, two brothers that worked with the deceased at the coal plant, one a coal truck driver, all hell breaks loose with a botched arrest when they are apprehended in a hair salon, turning into a bloody, comically absurd shoot-out that is both brutal and chaotic, where both are shot and killed along with two detectives, while Zhang is seriously wounded in the ensuing melee. Zhang is forced to retire from the force in disgrace, taking a menial job as a security guard for another factory.
Conveyed in a single shot, five years pass and the murder remains unsolved. Still traumatized by the incident, a barely recognizable Zhang drinks heavily, drowning his sorrows in guilt and self pity until his former partner Wang (Yu Ailei) provides him with the details of two recent murders that bear a similarity to the original case, their bodies slashed by the blades of ice skates, while both men knew Wu Zhizhen. On his own, determined to redeem the sins of the past, Zhang decides to privately investigate the widow Zhizhen, initially tailing her on the street in secret, but after awhile he’s beguiled by her beauty and develops feelings for her, absurdly allowing his constant presence to be seen. Zhizhen couldn’t be more passive and indifferent, never expressing any hint of emotion, playing the part of an ice princess, trying to warn him away, but he persists until eventually she agrees to go ice-skating together. Wang also warns Zhang of the danger of getting too involved with this woman, as they’ve seen the results of men that come in contact with her, so he follows him to the rink, adding his watchful eyes. It’s in this dreary wintry setting where the film distinguishes itself, as the scenes between Zhang and Zhizhen literally come alive with tension and conflicting energies, including the mainland director’s strange choice to use actress Gwei Lun-mei, who is actually Taiwanese, as his femme fatale, where her Black Widow persona makes her a prime candidate for the murderer, but Zhang distinguishes himself by somehow figuring out the underlying mystery, where he’s instead able to find Zhijun, who is still very much alive, but he’s unable to apprehend him as he escapes through a vacant lot leading into an industrial corridor, a literal wasteland surrounding a popular ice-rink. But Zhang doesn’t communicate this discovery to Wang, who doesn’t get the connection of the lone man he apprehends carrying a pair of ice skates, eventually paying for it with his life in perhaps the most startling moment of the film, all captured in a deserted alley in the silence of the white snow.
While there are tense moments of seemingly choreographed violence, there are also long, contemplative quiet periods that seem to meander into an aimless, inexplicable interior abyss, a kind of psychological void that Zhang has to claw and scratch his way out of, becoming a deeply probing character study, using a 1940’s American film noir style, where the guy constantly has a cigarette in his hand, and he’s seen continually talking to a series of alluring femme fatale women. He’s a complicated product of a misogynistic culture that early on displays inappropriate sexual harassment and then abuse, yet he remains the only sympathetic figure in the entire film, displaying persistence and a quiet intelligence, where the camera loves this guy, where everything else all around him remains a cesspool of corruption and inefficiency. Preferring a more naturalistic approach, the film gains strength with this emphasis on character, yet Zhang is surrounded by oddballs and misfits who aren’t remotely close to solving the crime. As a surreal reflection of just how unbalanced the world around him is, bizarre images appear out of midair, where a horse shows up in an office building, a nightclub owner collapses in mid-sentence during an interview, or fireworks erupt during the daylight hours, while adding the Wong Kar-wai style saturated color of neon lights and red-lit underground sex parlors. Cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s visual palette moves across vast stretches of urban isolation and unhappiness while also drenching the atmosphere in a bleak, wintry freeze, where the coldness and harshness of an industrial landscape is everpresent. Certainly one of the problems is the plot borders on the incomprehensible, where characters place their lives on the line at their own risk, willingly entering hazardous zones, yet all the people feel overly cold and foreign to one another. The film is often erratic, moving in strange directions, where a distraught Zhang follows a mysterious labyrinth of clues, but trusts no one with the information he uncovers, leading him into a dead zone where his dour psychological mindset matches that of the killer, a man completely cut off from the rest of the world. In this world there is sin, but no redemption.