Chinese director Diao Yinan’s first film in five years, The Wild Goose Lake is a gangster flick mainlining on pure fatalism and turns the tables on genre conventions and expectations. The result is an occasionally opaque but tremendously well-made melodrama.
When mobster Zhou Zenong (Ge Hu) accidentally shoots down a copper at a roadblock, he goes on the run. Following him to the shores of the lake which lends the film its title, is Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-Mei). She knows everybody from the police to rival gangs are looking for the marked man, she’s been sent by a boss, to act as an errand runner and accomplice in his bid to outwit the law and those who want him snuffed out over a territorial dispute.
Awash in febrile neon lighting and packed with muscular action set-pieces (the gory umbrella death is a highlight), The Wild Goose Lake’s French New Wave-style approach to montage is initially disorientating, lending the film an opaqueness that could be construed as a director making bold aesthetic choices, not out of storytelling necessity, but to elevate genre and make himself look ‘an artist’. But that would be dead wrong.
The plot structure of shared perspectives, moving back and forth in time, never with a clear delineation, hence the opaqueness, even when there’s on-screen text telling us where we are, does tend to obscure what is a relatively straightforward narrative, involving a man figuratively sinking in quicksand and a young woman seeking a way out of a torrid world of male domination and abuse. But therein lies the rub. The editing might be unexpected, unconventional, a bit annoying, but it is also very smart. Creating as it does a vital tension between plot and theme, pushing the two characters unrelentingly towards an event horizon and black hole denouement.
Gwei Lun-Mei’s performance as Liu Aiai is undoubtedly the film’s highlight. Far from just another femme fatale figure in a world of bastard men, the actor makes her role deeply affecting without resorting to swell-looking babe cliché or showy theatrics. She isn’t really a femme fatale, a mobster’s moll or a black widow. Caught in a hellish trap as much as Zhou Zenong is, she sees an opportunity to make a change in her life and takes it. The Wild Goose Lake isn’t interested in stereotypes of genre or tradition, more in how people become trapped by circumstance and how they react to these situations.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn