Cowardice, treachery and bloody murder coalesce in director Diao Yinan’s Golden Bear-winning Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), a tonally erratic noir that blends the aesthetics and absurd comicality of Johnnie To with a mainstream cop procedural. The apathy and social malaise of Northern China’s contemporary heartbeat provides the rhythm for Yinan’s ostentatious detective drama – a story that delves beyond mere motive and cause in search of the origin to this collective sense of melancholy. In a northern Chinese coal mine (circa 1999), a factory worker discovers the remains of a body. Reports then begin to surface of similar occurrences in other parts of the region as a pattern emerges.
Whilst investigating the case, the town’s bumbling police force find themselves in a bloody, comically absurd shootout at a local hair saloon where two officers are killed. Wounded, but alive, chief detective Zhang Zili is forced to retire from the force, taking a menial job as a security guard in the interim. Five years pass, with the ‘Black Coal murder’ remaining unsolved. Then, out of the blue, another series of similar murders occur. Assisted by a friend and former colleague, Zhang begins to investigate the crime in his own unique way, determined to redeem himself for the errors of the past. All paths lead back to one woman – the victim’s wife – with whom he begins to fall in love. Cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s imagery is strikingly beautiful; yet at the same time feels like an endless stream of derivative scenes.
Viewed singularly, each shot is work of pure artistry, yet put together, they feel foreign to one another – as if cut from different film and painstaking sewn into a patchwork of diverse styles. From the drained, lamp-lit colour palette of Wong Kar-wai to the gritty winter hues of Korean crime thrillers such as Memories of Murder, Yinan’s latest is a bleak experiment in eschewing genre convention. Laudable for its bravely yet unforgivable for its flagrant excesses, Black Coal, Thin Ice is in stark contrast to the minimalist approach used in 2007’s Night Train. This erratic and derivative methodology is echoed by the film’s indecisive script, with Yinan’s choice of characters a clichéd blend of familiar noir tropes. From the alcoholic ex-cop looking for redemption, to the vulnerable femme fatale whose fragility quickly demands closer scrutiny, all the ingredients combine to make a perfectly adequate thriller – then why does it taste so unusual?
By inhabiting the grey area between dreams and reality, Black Coal, Thin Ice is more than the black and white crime drama it’s name would suggest. Whilst verging on the incomprehensible, there’s something to be enjoyed about the strange atmosphere of confusion Yinan has created. By eradicating the delineation between good and evil, and rejecting the rules of the genres he frantically imitates, Yinan’s award-winning offering turns into a film that’s infuriating to follow, yet through its gaudy visuals and ethereal dreamscapes manages to leave a lasting impression. Attempting to create a representational image of China’s new reality by traversing the border which separates living and dreaming Black Coal, Thin Ice takes the brutal violence or the real world and the hazy romanticism of dreams to create a film that feels like a memory. It’s evocative, yet often incredibly hard to decipher the details.
The full Glasgow Film Festival 2015 programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at glasgowfilm.org.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble