AFI FILM FEST 2014: Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)
At one point in Diao Yinan’s third feature film, the camera presents the point of view of a car that is reaching the end of a tunnel. The year is 1999. A thick snow covers the road. To the right of the lane are a parked motorcycle and a man slumped on a block of cement. The camera with the car’s point of view passes him by. Yet it does a u-turn, as if returning to the tunnel, only to rest its sight again on the slumped man and his motorcycle. A man who had not been visible before is shaking the slumped man and takes off his goggles to reveal detective Zhang (Liao Fan), who had been in the car whose point of view we had thought we were sharing all this time. The man then leaves his smaller scooter and takes Zhang’s motorcycle. During this sequence, a caption appears: 2004. With one take and one caption, the film shifts in point of view and time period. This sequence calls attention to itself in terms of not only technique but also narrative structure and genre. Shape-shifting, unsettling, terse, and moody, this long take is emblematic of the film’s ambiguous nature and parallel worlds of fiction and actuality.
A most intriguing element present in Yinan’s first two films that Black Coal, Thin Ice continues is his preoccupation with figures of the law and their dealings with the mundane and everyday …
On the one hand, the man swapping his scooter for the motorcycle leads to the realisation of what detective Zhang has become after a 1999 murder investigation leads to the deaths of two of his colleagues—a lush and a security guard—and symbolises how he has fallen in status. When he stumbles upon one of his former detective colleagues in 2004, however, he is reacquainted with the ongoing unsolved case of body parts scattered across different coal factories in the region and begins to follow the woman Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-mei) connected to all of the deaths—with his scooter, no less. On the other hand, the swapping incident is also like an element of actuality that pierces the world of the story. The sequence’s double meaning also applies to the rest of the film (not to mention its title), with its series of murder cases spanning six years, Wu and her husband Liang (Wang Xuebing), and the detective who takes on the cases and Wu. Is it a question of using film noir as a means to address the ongoing sociocultural changes that China is experiencing or the other way around? Yinan poses this very question with his film, but with no intention of answering it. For the interest lies precisely in the constant tug-of-war between the story and the spaces in which it takes place: coal factories; a ballroom dancing hall; an outdoor ice skating rink; downtrodden apartment buildings; a hair salon lit by garish multicoloured lights (where Zhang’s two detective colleagues die); a dry-cleaning shop located at a street corner (never shot from the same angle in its multiple appearances) where Wu works; trains; a Ferris wheel; an Internet café; a movie theatre that shows 3-D films; nighttime scenes of streets with patches of snow and lit by equally garish multicoloured lights (including building façades), which cannot help but light the characters’ faces depending on where they are standing at any given moment. The story and environment continually speak to one another, as in Yinan’s previous films, because they are ultimately one and the same.
In a way, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a darker synthesis of Yinan’s two already dark films—Uniform (2003) and Night Train (2007).
In a way, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a darker synthesis of Yinan’s two already dark films—Uniform (2003) and Night Train (2007). Those familiar with them will not be surprised by the shifts in perspective of a given space in Black Coal, Thin Ice. In Uniform, a man who works at a laundry leads a humdrum life until he chances upon a police officer’s uniform, tries it on, and finds that those around him behave differently. In turn, he also comports himself in a different way with his environment. In Night Train, a bailiff who assists in the execution of female prisoners on death row enters a relationship with a man whose wife was the last prisoner she helped to execute. A mixture of dread and desire colours their relationship, each one’s motives increasingly ambiguous. The same mélange of desire, dread, and ambiguity characterises Zhang’s relationship with Wu, as he gets closer to her underneath the layers upon layers of deaths and motives. Furthermore, each layer uncovered in the case requires a perceptual readjustment of everyone and everything, including Zhang himself. A most intriguing element present in Yinan’s first two films that Black Coal, Thin Ice continues is his preoccupation with figures of the law and their dealings with the mundane and everyday—which, for Yinan, can quickly become absurd, grim, and grotesque. The result is a milieu seemingly always on edge.
True, at times the film suffers from an over attention to creating its eerie, anxious mood, which has the opposite effect of becoming overlong and falling flat. But with its unexpected bursts of humour, acute understanding of film noir and its application to the industrial landscape of northern China, and sense of environment as character, Black Coal, Thin Ice reinforces Yinan’s significance in contemporary Chinese filmmaking.
With its unexpected bursts of humour, acute understanding of film noir and its application to the industrial landscape of northern China, and sense of environment as character, Black Coal, Thin Ice reinforces Yinan’s significance in contemporary Chinese filmmaking.