Director: Diao Yinan
Writer: Diao Yinan
Producer: Vivian Qu, Wan Juan
Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang
Running Time: 106 min.
By Paul Bramhall
While the last decade has seen China become an important market in the film industry, the countries own output has had less success reaching beyond its own shores. Unlike the Hong Kong movies of yesteryear, which gained a dedicated following in the West thanks to their raucous energy and daring action scenes, the new wave of Mandarin language movies from the mainland have had little appeal to overseas audiences. Recently though, a number of modestly budgeted modern crime dramas have been gaining recognition from critics, and joining the likes of Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Black Coal, Thin Ice is another worthy entry into what will hopefully be a growing pool of mainland talent.
Black Coal, Thin Ice was shown at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, and not only walked away with the Golden Bear, but also had its leading man Liao Fan take the Silver Bear for Best Actor. Both awards are well earned, with director Diao Yinan crafting a tale that thematically has echoes of Bong Joon-ho’s classic Memories of Murder. Yinan, while primarily a scriptwriter, has directed his own tales twice before, with Uniform in 2003, and Night Train in 2007, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard Competition at the Cannes Film Festival of the same year. While 8 years is a long time between movies, Yinan has stated that it took him that long to finish the script. We can only hope Yinan and Wong Kar Wai never have an opportunity to collaborate together, or chances are we’d probably never hear from them again.
Taking place in the freezing climes of Heilongjiang province in North East China, the story begins in 1999 with the discovery of various dismembered body parts being found in coal plants across the region. After the investigation initially leads the police to a couple of local coal workers, events transpire that result in two officers being killed. Liao Fan plays one of the surviving detectives, who, traumatized by the death of his colleagues, sinks into a state of alcohol fuelled depression, losing his job as well as his will to live. Skip forward to 2004, and Fan, now working as a factory security guard, has a chance meeting with the other surviving detective, played by Ailei Yu, who has remained a cop. Yu reveals that he’s investigating two homicides, both of which were disposed of in a similar grizzly fashion to the original victim. The catch is, both victims were lovers of the original victim’s widow, played by Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun Mei.
Unable to help himself, Fan finds himself drawn to figuring out the connection between Lun Mei and the murders. He starts hanging out at the launderette where Lun Mei works, alone except for the presence of the stores owner, who may or may not be involved. It’s not long of course before he finds himself in too deep, as his poking around leads to ramifications for all those around him. Fan’s performance as the down and out former detective is well deserving of the praise it won at Berlin, a role which he gained 44 pounds for. We’re given little insight or background into his character, other than he has a short temper, however his performance convincingly portrays someone who’s both troubled and morally ambiguous. In some ways he comes across as a less intense version of Seol Kyong-ju’s crumpled detective in Public Enemy, he’s not that likeable, but he ends up winning our sympathy anyway.
Fan is evenly matched by Gwei Lun Mei, who goes from being an innocent widow being harassed by his persistent advances, to someone who may well know more than what we first believe. Both actors are complimented by Yinan’s assured direction. His pacing is slow and deliberate, but it never feels dull. If anything, his direction feels reminiscent of Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano’s earlier works such as Sonatine and Hana-bi. From the laid back pacing, suddenly interrupted by short bursts of graphic violence which come out of nowhere, to the dry as a bone humor, like when a passerby who stops to help a drunken Fan get back on his bike ends up riding away on it himself.
The freezing ice and snow covered landscapes of Heilingjiang province play just as much of a role as the characters themselves – the constant snowfall obscuring visibility, and thick snow on the ground making it difficult to move around. The snowy pathways and icy roads are offset by the black coal of the factories, dirtying anything within their radius, including their workers. The town the movie is set in almost seems like it’s from another era, with everything looking old and rusted, and if I remember correctly there’s not a single computer or mobile phone used throughout the whole run time. Instead the characters are left to find their answers from the town and its inhabitants the hard way, battling through the hostile conditions, and always buried deep within oversized winter jackets and hats.
The actual direct English translation of the Chinese title is ‘Daylight Fireworks’, and it’s a theme which is explored more than once in the narrative, arguably making it a more suitable title than Black Coal, Thin Ice. While it’s still relevant, it’s the equivalent of changing the title of Hana-bi to ‘Road Trip’, yes it makes sense, but it doesn’t really touch on the deeper meaning. The title of Black Coal, Thin Ice will also most likely leave many viewers scratching their head over the final scene. Yinan himself stated that the meaning of ‘Daylight Fireworks’ is a reflection of the state someone is in. For Fan’s down and out detective, this could be read a couple of different ways. Is he squandering his talents on a situation in which no one will appreciate his efforts, or is it rather that the darkness he dwells in is capable of releasing the truth from a place it’s remained hidden for too long?
Either way, Black Coal, Thin Ice shows a welcome new side of mainland filmmaking. Revealing a genre piece which is devoid of any flag waving propaganda that plagues so many of the recent mainland productions, and instead focuses on a tightly constructed narrative and well drawn out characters, here’s hoping we see a lot more of Yanin in the future. Any self-respecting fan of the Asian crime genre should definitely make it a priority to check this one out.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10