EMINE – ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ little trouble in big China

‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ little trouble in big ChinaChinese director Yi’nan Diao’s Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear winner “Black Coal, Thin Ice” opened in select theaters of the alternative film distribution system BaIka Sinema on Friday to the pleasure of a crowd of filmgoers looking for an alternative to the usual summer blockbuster invasion.This bleak take on contemporary China comes in the form of film noir, a classic genre that directors have shied away from in past years.

Yet Diao proves with his masterful direction that an authentic re-invention can offer something fresh.The story starts in 1994 in an industrial city where the dismembered body parts of a man are found in several different coal processing factories throughout the region.

Newly divorced police detective Zhang Zili (Fan Liao, who also picked up the Best Actor prize in Berlin) is sent to investigate with his partner After fruitless questioning with the deceased man’s beautiful but clueless wife Wu (Lun Mei Gwei), the detective duo manages to find a lead to several suspects, leading to an encounter that ends up with a disastrous shoot-out that finds Zhang and his partner disgraced.Ten years later, Zhang has left the police and is working as head of security at a coal mine and spends most of his days consuming alcohol.

He’s a man who has lost all hope from life and has succumbed to nihilism It is the dead of winter and the city looks even more destitute and grim adding to this atmosphere, the police once again find amputated body parts throughout the coal factories. This is exactly the same murder scenario that Zhang and his buddies investigated back in 1994, and it turns out that the victim is related to Wu.

Zhang unwillingly starts helping the police force, but also starts falling in love with Wu, who is still working at the same laundry where they had first met. Wu is not your typical femme fatale apart from her exceptional beauty that marks her as the convention’s archetype, she represents the frustrated but acquiescent working-class woman who puts up with daily harassment from her boss and the oppression of the strict society she lives in.

In 2004, China’s strings are already pulled by the cruel strings of capitalism and for the citizens it seems that living conditions have not changed for the better, apart from consumerist entertainment offerings such as glamorous disco bars.The plot thickens as Zhang discovers by himself what Wu is hiding and why she lives a life in fear At this point Zhang does not share the information with the police, whom we gradually understand are a laughing stock since their idea of police work is copying interrogation scenes from American cop dramas.

A skillfully shot tracking sequence that takes place on a frozen lake transformed into an ice-skating rink, where Zhang and Wu are skating in circles, reveals to us where the murderer might be and sends a chill up our spines as we watch Wu’s desperation worsen as she glides like a ghost on the ice. This particular scene will surely stay in the viewer’s mind for a long time, and find its way into film history books.

What is so brilliant about this film is that, despite the gloomy atmosphere it presents, its screenplay has the pace of a good police procedural while it offers unexpected plot turns that makes the story multi-layered without being pretentious. The story’s framework is so meticulously constructed that the viewer watches the unfolding of the images without ever losing curiosity in the whodunit scheme or lose interest in its soulful characters.

Furthermore, the director’s use of spot-on black humor adds another dimension to his social commentary, which is always evident but never thrown in the face of the viewer Thankfully, there is no trace of didactics here.“Black Coal, Thin Ice” is a powerful film that grows on the viewer steadily and surely.

Its attempt at blending organically the reality of contemporary China into the film noir genre is a success on its own. Within the film’s bleakness, there is still an underlying speck of hope and rebellion, such as in the climactic final scene: Even when all is lost and the system swallows its citizens, desire and love have a way of getting through.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman