This captivating thriller by Diao Yinan won the Golden Bear earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, and it’s a stylish, meticulously-paced police procedural, one that consistently delivers sudden, unexpected twists and turns. Set in northern China in 1999 (initially, anyway), the story begins with dismembered body parts turning up on a conveyor belt in a coal processing plant. Mysteriously other parts of the same body appear simultaneously at other coal plants in the region, and detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is assigned the case. One botched arrest later – an excellent scene that serves as a further reminder as to why western directors have long been aping their eastern contemporaries – and Zhang goes off the rails before losing his job as a police officer. The action subsequently moves forward five years; we discover that he has hit the bottle and is working as a security guard. However he is drawn back to police work when he finds out from a former colleague that new murders have been linked to the 1999 killing; body parts begin to show up in coal plants again, while a common thread appears to be a dry cleaning store and the woman who works there, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei); Zhang launches his own unofficial investigation.
If there’s something predictable about the film’s developing romance – former cop haunted by his inability to solve a murder becomes obsessed by a widow and key suspect – there’s nothing ordinary about the way in which it is depicted, or filmed. Wu remains distant throughout. In one scene the pair go ice-skating. She is graceful and at ease on the ice, while he is slow and lumbers around awkwardly; it seems to sum up the way he has carried out his investigation, while she is one step ahead, moving away from him. (Later on Zhang has to chase a male suspect – also a talented skater – across the same patch of frozen lake; the ex-cop runs and slips while, in the distance, the man in question gradually disappears.)
Diao has made a grim ode to the night, but it is also a movie that is awash with colour. Much of the action takes place after sundown in and around neon-lit streets, the shop signs and other lights of the heavily industrialised city reflecting against the snow that covers the ground. There are unexpected visual touches; when the first body part shows up at the coal factory, for example, the camera tracks its journey, even spinning around 360 degrees as the part is dumped by a tipper truck. When the action moves forward five years Diao makes the leap via a long tracking shot down a tunnel. During the aforementioned skating scene Lun-Mei is filmed by a gliding cameraman, presumably DoP Dong Jingsong, who sashays from side-to-side in tandem with Wu as Zhang struggles in the background. This strong visual style, coupled with the slow, methodical pacing, reminds me of David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Despite the strong visual style I wouldn’t describe this film as flashy; it has grounded, realistic performances and the scenes mentioned above are exceptions, rather than the norm; there’s also an inherent chilliness due to the seasonal weather, and it paints a rather unflattering picture of industrial China, to the point that I’m surprised it made it out of the country uncensored (though apparently the version shown within China was cut). Nevertheless the film’s ending is aloof, offbeat and a little frustrating, and I wonder whether the symbolism included by the director at the end has been lost in translation. The screenplay, also written by Diao, recalls the plot of Harold Becker’s late-80s thriller Sea Of Love, though it also has a flavour of Raymond Chandler about it: it’s easy to get lost as the plot takes sudden left turns, right turns and about-turns, while the characters are, generally-speaking, noir archetypes. From what I can gather the pace of Black Coal, Thin Ice, coupled with the challenge of staying on top of the plot, seems to have put some people’s noses out of joint – a sign of the times, I’m sorry to say – but make no mistake: this atmospheric piece has been made by a talented filmmaker, and is well worth seeking out.
Directed by: Diao Yinan.
Written by: Diao Yinan.
Starring: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei.
Cinematography: Dong Jingsong.
Editing: Yang Hongyu.
Music: Wen Zi, Various.
Running Time: 109 minutes.