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This Chinese documentary/art film by Zhao Liang addresses the large-scale environmental destruction and landscape alteration that is currently taking place in Inner Mongolia, showing the work carried out at huge mines and smelting plants as well as the wide-ranging costs and effects that heavy industry is having on the area and its people. It’s a quiet, slow film – Zhao lets his striking images do the talking, for the most part – and it focuses on several different conneccted issues: first the changing of the landscape through explosions and other mining activities; second the displacement of farmers and others who have relied on the land for their livelihoods for many years; third the conditions that the workers in these giant mines must endure on a daily basis; and fourth the physical toll the work takes on them, with many young men and women eventually succumbing to respiratory illnesses and worse. There is beautiful photography of the landscape, as well as the occasional smoky, hellish image of men working near molten material or struggling to operate in other hot, dusty areas, while Zhao also studiously films the sweaty, exhausted faces and ravaged bodies of miners and other workers in close-up. Juxtaposed with these are calmer, more distant shots in which a naked figure appears in the foetus position somewhere in the landscape, while the image fragments like a cracked mirror and a voiceover discusses the land in a solemn, poetic fashion; other figures occasionally appear with a mirror strapped to their backs, in which the filmmaker is briefly glimpsed. These elements add a little mystery, but the overall message is clear: the working conditions are unacceptably poor and the extent of the mining operations can be described as callous or unnecessarily rapacious at best. Zhao ends proceedings by filming guerrilla-style in one of China’s many ‘ghost cities‘, evidently perplexed and concerned about the Chinese government’s plans to move hundreds of millions of countryside inhabitants into its many brand-new urban areas. For what reason, and at what cost? The combination of stylish photography with the industrial subject matter recalls Jennifer Baichwal’s collaborative film with photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, though there is greater empathy with workers here and more of an emphasis on social issues.

Directed by: Zhao Liang.
Written by: Sylvie Blum, Zhao Liang, Weiping Cui, Chinnie Ding.
Cinematography: Zhao Liang.
Editing: Fabrice Rouaud.
Music: Huzi, Alain Mahé.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Year: 2016.

8

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. BlackCoalThinIce-xlargeThere 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.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
109 minutes.
Year:
2015.

4 Comments

fullwidth.f4a5c48cWong Kar-wai’s most recent film is a (kinda, sorta) biopic, dramatising the life of the legendary Wing Chun martial arts grandmaster Ip Man, a man who counted Bruce Lee among his pupils and who is played here by Wong’s long-term collaborator Tony Leung. It’s mostly set during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, a time of great political upheavel in China and, according to this story, an important period in the history of martial arts: there are long-standing tensions between northern and southern China and those who practice their respective regional fighting disciplines – but there is a sense of old enemies coming together to fight invading Japanese forces, with Ip eventually fleeing to Hong Kong after the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film initially focuses on Ip’s rise as the southern champion, his temporary descent into poverty and his unconsummated relationship with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the surviving daughter of a northern grandmaster, but latterly it shifts its attention to a dynastic struggle between Gong and Ma San (Zhang Jin), which ends with a sumptuously-shot showdown at a snowy train station; you could certainly argue that Wong’s film, or at least the second half of it, is as much about Gong as it is about Ip.

The subtle and beautiful montages that hint at the various complicated states of Ip and Gong’s relationship are sadly ruined by a typically clunky Weinstein Company interference, with some intrusive explanatory text added for western audiences. Indeed it’s difficult to know, without seeing the original cut of this film, whether Wong or the Weinsteins are to blame for the various problems with The Grandmaster‘s story: it is occasionally muddled and rather unfocused but that’s hardly a surprise when you discover that the version released in the UK has lost 30 minutes of footage  make of that what you will. Despite this I have to say that watching the film remains an enjoyable experience overall, simply because it is a real visual treat. Wong has always used an expressive colour palette and this latest work  shot on 35mm film  is no different, while cinematographer Philippe Le the grandmasterSourd, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work here, frames the characters up close over and over again, isolating their starkly lit faces against dark or out of focus backgrounds. Fights take place in elaborate indoor settings or in rainy and snowy outdoor locations; we see the individual droplets of rain and the snowflakes falling and landing while the characters dance around one another, and Wong repeatedly shows nearby surfaces as bodies impact upon them in one way or another; meanwhile the camerawork captures hands and feet as they move gracefully in battle, with slow-mo as prevalent as ever. I’m no martial arts connoisseur but the fighting in The Grandmaster looks very impressive to my eyes, and there seems to be an emphasis on traditional style rather than multiplex-pleasing acrobatics, in keeping with the film’s nostalgic leanings; there’s a commendable desire to get to grips with the philosophy underpinning the fighting styles too, though I suspect the bulk of that has been Weinsteined. The director tips his hat repeatedly to Sergio Leone, and Wong is clearly aiming for the same kind of epic, sweeping feel that Leone made his own; at one point the soundtrack references Ennio Morricone’s magnificent score for Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America and it’s wholly relevant, too, given that it arrives as one character’s life is gradually taken over by opium use. But this version has little of the cohesion of Leone’s work: The Grandmaster spans decades, has a backdrop of political change running alongside personal stories, looks the part and sounds the part, so it really is a shame that the western cut reduces it to a narrative mess.

Directed by: Wong Kar-wai.
Written by: Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng.
Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Jin, Song Hye-kyo, Wang Qingxiang.
Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd.
Editing: William Chang.
Music:
Shigeru Umebayashi, Stefano Lentini.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
104 minutes.
Year:
2014.

2 Comments