"Forget it, Zhang... it's coal country". Forgive me for the pithy reference to Chinatown, but to be fairly honest Black Coal, Thin Ice, the third feature from Chinese helmer Diao Yi'nan, pretty much begs for it, being all about classic film noir tropes moved to the last place you'd expect to find them: China in the shift from the 20th to the 21st century.
It's not as far-fetched as it may seem, as modern China and its boomtown economic build-up mean the rules of the genre don't look much out of place, with Mr. Diao, also scripting, adapting them to fit the specifics of the setting. But, if you remove the exotic background, would Black Coal, Thin Ice still be convincing?
In point of fact, this story of an alcoholic ex-cop (the great Liao Fan) pulled back into the unsolved case that made him leave the force five years earlier is a solid, if unimposing and slightly anonymous, drama. Mr. Diao's rather neutral stagings and Dong Jingsong's glare-filled, sickly photography, catching these characters like flies under the harsh fluorescent lighting, point out how everyone seems to be all submissive to the bright lights of economicism. (The more appropriate original Chinese title is Daylight Fireworks.) And the director does pull off a few truly inspired visual moments - like the much celebrated credit sequence tracking shot that bridges the five-year interval between the prologue and the main thrust of the plot, or the clumsiest, most amateurish gunfight in the history of film thrillers ever.
But Black Coal, Thin Ice is essentially a Chinese take on a Western genre film, and without that clever usage of genre tropes it probably wouldn't have received the attention it has had from Western press and critics. (It was the least interesting of the three Chinese entries in the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, and yet it was the event's winner, taking home the Golden Bear for Best Picture.) As in classic noirs, and unlike what the trailer below suggests, it's not really about solving a crime, in this case the identity of the body parts being found all around the province - it's about what the process of investigating it reveals, what it says about the people involved and the society they live in.
Mr. Liao is outstanding as the jaded, weary man who's seen too much, and Gwei Lun Mei is equally strong as the femme fatale that seems to lie at the heart of the mystery. They're broken people looking for a glimmer of warmth but probably too far down the social scale to deserve it, and it's for the best that Mr. Diao's script avoids any semblance of easy redemption.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is more than just an exotic curiosity, but it's also a little bit too derivative to be entirely convincing; its interest lies precisely in trying to bridge genre and a more traditionally observational drama. It doesn't quite succeed, but it's no less interesting for trying.
BAI RI YAN HUO
Cast Liao Fan, Guei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei
Director and screenwriter Diao Yi'nan; cinematographer Dong Jingsong (colour); composer Wen Li; art director Liu Qiang; editor Yang Hongyu; producers Vivian Yu and Wan Juan; production companies Omnijoi Media Corporation, Boneyard Entertainment China and China Film Company
Screened February 11th 2014, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 competition press screening) and December 14th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)