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New Release Review - BLACK COAL, THIN ICE

A retired alcoholic detective begins to reinvestigate his final case.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Yi'nan Diao

Starring: Fan Liao, Lun Mei Gwei, Xuebing Wang



"As a director, Yinan is certainly one to watch, but if he's to deliver a fully satisfying narrative he needs to find a screenplay collaborator."



Winner of the top prize, the Golden Bear, at last year's Berlin Film Festival, Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice does a pretty good job of initially fooling us into believing it's a movie of far greater depth than it really is. Take the title for example; Black Coal, Thin Ice sounds pretty intriguing until you realise the movie's plot does indeed feature both coal and ice. Then it just sounds tacky. The movie's visuals provide a disarming elegance that isn't mirrored in its awkwardly constructed script. Yinan strives for style and substance but only successfully achieves the former.
The story begins in 1999, with a severed hand turning up at a coal plant. Soon the rest of the victim's body parts appear at various other coal plants around China. Assigned to the case is detective Zhang (Liao Fan), who struggles to concentrate on his work thanks to his ugly recent divorce. His inattention leads to two of his fellow cops being gunned down when an interrogation goes wrong, Zhang himself taking a bullet that forces him to retire from the force.
Five years later, Zhang is a drunk, struggling to hold down his job as a factory security guard. When a second hacked up body appears, his former partner makes him privy to the details of the case. Both victims had two things in common, sharing romantic ties to pretty laundry worker Wu (Gwei Lun-Mei), and both being murdered while wearing ice skates, which also seems to have been the weapon used. Zhang decides to begin his own investigation, ingratiating himself into the life of Wu, and placing himself as the potential next victim.
With China relaxing its previously strict laws on how the nation should be portrayed by its filmmakers, we've seen a new wave of cynical movies that paint a bleak portrait of contemporary China. As in last year's A Touch of SinBlack Coal, Thin Ice gives us a China in which nobody is to be trusted and everyone seems to have their own scam. Think of a gritty working class Basic Instinct, with ice picks replaced by ice skates, and you've pretty much got the central thrust of the narrative. Yinan is all too happy to trade in crime genre clich├ęs, reflected in his protagonist, an alcoholic, divorced, violent ex-cop. No boxes are left unticked.
Structurally, the movie suffers from a false ending, one that seems at first to reference the final shot of The Third Man, at a point where the film could have satisfactorily wrapped things up, but it carries on with an added plot twist that it's hard to care about at that point, also adding a second nod to The Third Man with a confrontation on a ferris wheel.
For all Yinan's script struggles, his visuals are masterful. Many shots resemble GIFS, the only movement coming from the film's many flashing neon signs, and entire tableaux appear to be lit only by elaborate signage, primary coloured glows reflecting the mood of the scenes. He also knows how to construct a scene effectively in a single static take. The movie's two most memorable scenes play out in such fashion - a neon drenched killing in an alleyway and the early botched interrogation, both exploding in sudden blasts of violence aided by carelessness. The use of sound is also inspired, from the hum of Wu's washing machines adding to the tension of her awkward courtship with Zhang, to the soundtrack of a Kung Fu flick playing in a nearby theatre serving to score a killing. As a director, Yinan is certainly one to watch, but if he's to deliver a fully satisfying narrative he needs to find a screenplay collaborator.




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