Directed by: Yi'nan Diao.
Written by: Yi'nan Diao.
Starring: Fan Liao (Zhang Zili), Lun Mei Gwei (Wu Zhizhen), Xuebing Wang (Liang Zhijun), Wang Jingchun (Rong Rong), Yu Ailei (Captain Wang), Ni Jingyang (Su Lijuan).
Not long ago, there was a series of crime movies where it seemed like the closer you looked at a crime, the less clear the whole thing became – while the movies often “solved” the crimes at their core, they could not explain them. Films like Bong joon-ho’ Memories of Murder (2003), David Fincher’s Zodiac (2006) and Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) come to mind. Yi’nan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice tries to tap into that same uncomfortable ambiguity that made those films (among others) so great – but he doesn’t quite pull it off. The movie is awash in crime movie clichés, features an overly complicated plot which is actually relatively straight forward when you untangle all the knots Diao throws into it, and at times is too self-consciously art-y for its own good. Those other films walked that fine line between regular crime film and art film masterfully – Black Coal, Thin Ice stumbles and doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s a hell of an effort though – that despite its flaws, remains at the very least interesting.
The movie opens in 1999 – when two cops, including Zhang (Fan Liao) are investigating a series of murders that involve people being chopped up, and their body parts end up across a very large area, in different coal plants. The latest victim Liang Zhijun, has been identified, and Zhang quickly identifies a suspect – but the arrest goes awry, and more than one person ends up dead. Flash forward five years, and Zhang is now a drunk – little more than a security guard – but is consulted when a similar series of murders begins again. Zhang is drawn to Liang’s widow – Wu Zhizen (Lun Mei Gwei) – both professionally and personally, as the two intertwine in classic noir fashion.
Like the best noirs of the past, Black Coal, Thin Ice takes place in a world without heroes and villains – but rather a morally grey area, in which people are flawed, and drawn into a world of violence and murder beyond their control. Even as the various murders become clear, everyone involved grows more complex, rather than less, and the world depicted is a bleak one. The visual look of the film masterfully creates that feel as well – with the neon streets of the city, and the cold, snow covered expanses around the coal factories being equally cold and foreboding. The film takes place in Northern China – and shares some visual cues, and the moral outlook, of Jia Zhang-ke’s masterful A Touch of Sin – in particular the first couple of chapters of that film. I cannot imagine that the film is overly popular with the Chinese authorities – A Touch of Sin certainly wasn’t – as it presents a similar worldview of China, in an emerging economy, becoming de-humanized.
The problems with the film exist because Diao never quite manages to bridge the gap between the noir genre film he is making on the surface, and the political art film that is going on underneath the surface. The film alternates between scenes that would not be out of place in an American police procedural, and self-consciously arty depictions of the new China, which often drags the films plot to a halt. It doesn’t help that the story itself is relatively straight forward – you know where it is headed from fairly early on in the film, and the film proceeds to go there fairly slowly. The closing scenes of the film – after the case is resolved – are perhaps the most problematic, as they don’t seem to fit with the rest of the story.
Still, there is enough in Black Coal, Thin Ice to make it worthwhile. The visual look alone is brilliant, and enough to get you through the film. The two lead performances are also quite good – even if as the alcoholic ex-cop looking for redemption, and the potential femme fatale are really stock characters, that Diao doesn’t do much with beyond the normal. Black Coal, Thin Ice has lofty ambitions – it wants to take its place among the best crime dramas of its time. It doesn’t reach those levels – but you have to admire it for trying.