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Black Coal, Thin Ice
The Bounty

Guey Lun-Mei and Liao Fan on thin ice in Black Coal, Thin Ice.
Chinese: 白日焰火  
Year: 2014
Director: Diao Yinan
Producer:

Vivian Qu, Wan Juan

Writer:

Diao Yinan

Cast:

Liao Fan, Guey Lun-Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang, Chang Kaining

  The Skinny:

Icy China-set film noir may be tough going for some audiences, but the impressive storytelling and detailed plot and characters make this a smart and sometimes dryly funny winner. Winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear for Best Film.

 
Review
by Kozo:
Dry and inscrutable to the point of being inert, Black Coal, Thin Ice is nonetheless an impressively-controlled and involving mystery drama. Succinctly described as an ice-cold China film noir, the film stars Liao Fan as Zhang Zili, a former cop who left the force in 1999 after being wounded in a gunfight that left two suspects and two officers dead. At the time Zili was investigating a curious case: The body parts of a man identified as Liang Zhijun were found in various coal stacks around northeastern China, but the trail eventually went cold. Five years later during the dead of winter, the shell-shocked Zili crosses paths with his former colleague Wang (Yu Ailei), now staking out Liang Xhijunís widow, Wu Zhizhen (Guey Lun-Mei). Two more dead men have turned up in circumstances similar to Liang Zhijunís, and Wu Zhizhen was romantically involved with both. Needing little convincing, Zili begins to independently investigate Zhizhen, and a cold, strained romance between the two starts to emerge.

Black Coal, Thin Ice may be tough going for less patient audiences, since itís slow, abstruse and lacks exposition. Director Diao Yinan is circumspect in his storytelling; charactersí actions are seldom foreshadowed or explained, requiring the audience to often play catch-up. Also, information is seeded fairly early before payoffs are delivered later Ė if at all Ė which makes for some audience frustration. For example, at one point a single glance from Zhizhen reveals that she knows the angle of Ziliís investigation, but she seemingly does nothing to address her situation Ė a mystifying move, to say the least. Yet despite the slow-burning plot, the story resolves neatly, with some conveniences but also room for interpretation and thought. There are verbalized explanations but they arrive at appropriate times and donít seem shoehorned in, and the most pivotal events are handled through action not words. At times, Black Coal, Thin Ice almost feels like an experiment in how to make a mystery thriller with as little dialogue as possible.

While its central mystery is involving, Black Coal, Thin Ice is most fascinating when it explores character and emotion. In Zhang Ziliís case, heís established as a passionate cop who becomes traumatized after an arrest gone wrong. As his investigation into Zhizhen becomes deeper and more dangerous, the question arises: What exactly is he seeking? Is it justice, redemption or something more? The film doesnít explicitly state the answer, leaving it to the viewer to gleam Ziliís motives and growth from Liao Fanís uncommunicative but surprisingly compelling performance. While heís seeking or potentially impeding justice, Zili makes some difficult choices, and his peculiar ways of expressing conflict or emotion manage to strike a chord. Guey Lun-Mei is far more obvious as the icy femme fatale, pushing her frosty, pained widow act for all its worth Ė which is quite a lot, considering that sheís so good at it. The relationship between the two is enjoyably enigmatic, and grows with a silence and awkwardness that feels authentic.

Shifts in tone are not obvious but there are moments of exceptionally dry black humor sprinkled throughout. Some scenes are lightened by Diaoís placement of minor absurdities, like an extreme leap off-camera during an arrest, the cops munching on watermelon while discussing a murder, or a dumbstruck couple watching as a suspect is marched through their flat to silently identify a crime scene. At times, the film resembles an exceptionally dry, less quirky Coen Brothers work, with its irony-laced storytelling, seedy lower-class characters, small-town environs, and moments of casual darkness. However, the Coens are more forthcoming than Diao Yinan, who keeps his intentions so close to the vest that itís easy to think that the film is saying nothing. Initial impressions can deceive. The film is ultimately like its characters, who try so hard not to call attention to themselves that when thereís a crack in the armor, no matter how slight, whatever spills out resonates far more. In Black Coal, Thin Ice, deeds and not words are what matter. (Kozo, 10/2015)

 
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 PAL
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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