Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014)
The surprise winner at this year’s Berlinale shocked a few people by beating Boyhood to the top prize, but it’s not at all unworthy. A neo-noir set in snowy Northern China, with its stylistic and colour code veering between icy white canvases reflecting the wintry existential emptiness and neon-lit urban scapes of an amoral dog-eat-dog world, it’s a visually striking re-imagining of classic film noir tropes. There’s a rather inept drunkard of a cop who bungles a murder investigation and loses his badge; and there’s a femme fatale, a mysterious launderette clerk who bizarrely keeps coming up as the common link whenever mutilated corpses start surfacing in coal mines.
But this seemingly conventional noir plot is played out in rather unconventional ways. The most shocking and startling scene, which despite otherwise largely mobile camerawork makes great use of a static frame to heighten tension, occurs in a beauty salon near the start. The film’s finale goes off on a tangent of a coda, after the main narrative has been resolved, and closes on a seemingly random, abrupt note. These are bold narrative decisions.
In any case, the plot, which admittedly is perhaps lacking in thrills in its resolution if you’re looking for standard thriller fare, is very far from the point of this movie. Visually and atmosphere-wise, there’s so much to admire. The suffocating film noir atmosphere of fatalistic doom is also reinvented, and what better way to visually demonstrate the coldness of the inter-relations between these characters, and the precariousness of their destinies, than the thin sheet of ice surrounding the outskirts of the town. The film makes the most of this motif with some brilliantly filmed ice-skate chase scenes, the slicing of the blades across the ice being felt almost viscerally. A scene between our cop and the femme fatale, full of erotic tension, stuck together in a hazardously creaking Ferris wheel, is another example of the film’s visual and sonic toolkit being put to great atmospheric use.
There’s also much to enjoy in the way director Diao Yinan controls the unexpected shifts in tone throughout the film, which only riffs with the detective noir genre, combining it with an unpredictable structure carried along by languorous pacing and plenty of darkly wry humour. The cop is played in a commanding performance mixing drunken oafishness, subtle facial expressions, and an impromptu break-out dance that Denis Lavant would be proud of (in another of the film’s random unexpected moments), by Liao Fan who certainly deserved his Best Actor prize at Berlin. That Berlin double-win should boost its chances of theatrical release at some point in 2015, but nothing confirmed yet. (December 2014)
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019)
Late one rain-drenched Wuhan night, outside the imposing architecture of a police station, two strangers — a man and a woman — skulk around the concrete pillars and walls to hide, not just from cops but also the torrential downpour, before striking a conversation over a cigarette and soon realising their fates are interlocked, he being the charismatic leader of a motorcycle thief gang wounded and on the run after accidentally killing a policeman, a crime that’s left him with a 300,000 yuan reward tag on his head, and she a prostitute (officially a ‘bathing beauty’ providing companionship and other services to male customers at the titular Wild Goose Lake) begrudgingly mired into the situation to act as broker so that the gangster’s estranged wife and young son can pick up that reward money, or at least this is the gangster’s hope, perhaps his one noble act after years of criminality being to give himself up to the police so long as that money can go back to that wife and son he lost all connection with in favour of crime, except that every other rival gang and even some of his own so-called brothers want that money for themselves and are hatching up plans to get their hands on it…
If it all sounds very convoluted, that is because this is a neo-noir, an update of the film noir tradition of morally corrupt worlds where even the simplest of tales is drawn out into the most complicated of narratives. But in the capable control of writer-director Diao Yinan, who has carved a reputation for himself as the foremost master of Chinese neo-noir, The Wild Goose Lake becomes an epic of honour, sacrifice, redemption, loyalty and fate, that is to say the big classic themes of film noir, transplanted to contemporary China, for The Wild Goose Lake is a neo-noir of mythical dimensions and more than a little social commentary. Diao Yinan follows up his masterfully moody noir Black Coal, Thin Ice by moving on from the deliberate minimalism of his earlier work, and dialling things up: even more neon-suffused urban locales, even more expertly choreographed violence and action (Diao shows off a terrific flair for set pieces not previously evident in his earlier films), even more instances of mise-en-scene details being used for full, often uncanny effect: in Black Coal a creaky Ferris wheel, daytime fireworks, and the sharp blades of ice skates proved memorable; here anything and everything has the potential to be elevated into cinematic material, from light-up sneakers in a communal square dance to Boney M, to the revving, rain-piercing bikes of the gangs, to a dingy, dimly lit hotel basement where an incredible congress of the city’s criminals gathers to deliberate and altercate.
Diao has found in his home country and in the language of noir the perfect marriage, the mood of noir being so germane to the subtle social commentary he infuses in his films, adding up to a vision of contemporary China that is mythical enough to get past censors and yet unmistakably critical of the way Chinese society is developing — among other things the Lake of the title is a metaphor for a place without rules or laws where anything goes, or in another scene the local factory workshops are shown to operate according to the same rules as the criminal gangs do. At the same time, Wild Goose Lake shows Diao to be film-literate to a degree far beyond just noir: the opening encounter in the rain cannot but remind us of the opening of Kurosawa‘s Rashomon where there too the storytelling of shelter-seekers takes the film into convoluted flashbacks; that criminal convention in the hotel basement is reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s M with its criminal-made makeshift court, albeit with explosive action scenes injected into it. More local cultural references abound too: wild geese in Chinese poetry are a symbol for exile and separation between spouses, hitting home the film’s central moral dilemma, while a rendition of the ever-popular Indonesian folk song ‘Bengawan Solo’ (beloved across East Asia), a nostalgic song about the passing of time in a river, is also meaningfully rife with connections to the titular Lake, another body of water, once a resort but now perhaps a lawless, lost utopia amid the endless capitalist expansion of a hyper-accelerating China. It is this multi-faceted blend that makes Diao’s own brand of neo-noir as stimulating as it is stylistically exciting; one wonders how he keeps getting away with it (his films are released in China albeit with occasional cuts) but let’s hope long may he continue to do so. (April 2023)