1999: A severed hand makes its way down the production line at a Chinese coal plant. More body parts turn up at fifteen other plants simultaneously. Officer Zhang Zili’s (Fan Liao) investigation leads to a bloody, career-ending debacle and the trail goes cold.
2004: Five years later, Zhang Zili, now a drunken security worker, picks the case back up with the aid of his old partner (Xuebing Wang) when identical killings begin. Working off the books, they find a common link between the crimes in a female dry cleaners employee who happened to know both victims (Lun Mei Gwei).
Neon-lit streets, an eerie ice-skating rink, and the “Daytime Fireworks Club” are among the locales in which the threads of this measured and complex Chinese thriller are wound. Director Yi’nan Diao (“Night Train”) uses classic noir elements and a splash of pulp to craft an irresistible mystery, and won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for his efforts.
Diao allows the camera to soak in the atmosphere of an urban, wintery Northern China. The snow and ice slows the pace of movement and prohibits any back-alley foot chases – an expected and somewhat overused motif in East Asian crime thrillers. Instead, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” moves at the speed of real life with frighteningly realistic outbreaks of graphic violence. Where stylish and fluid killings can become easy to take in due to their use of style over emotional substance, a shooting in Diao’s film takes twice as long as anywhere else – giving the audience time to watch a character slowly reach towards a gun that no one in the room has their eyes on, realizing what’s about to happen just before it does. It’s loud, brutal, and most importantly necessary.
“Black Coal” is a great foreign film for American audiences because it’s an authentic crime saga – a detective procedural that doesn’t get sidetracked by style and has a whole mess of secrets to uncover. There’s no singular “twist” at work here, just the slow unspooling of a layered past by a man seeking redemption for his past failures as a police officer.
Fan Liao, in one of his first leading roles, thrills as Zhang and promises a long career in Chinese cinema. The first act of the film could stand to have a few bolts tightened in terms of clearly communicating its story, but Liao remains an alluring presence throughout.
The screening was introduced with a video clip from Martin Scorsese wishing the festival a happy birthday on its 50th anniversary, and putting Diao’s film in the context of Scorsese’s crime sagas makes a lot of sense. Both filmmakers are working in underworld crime spaces with plots that don’t arch so much as they wind.
8.5 out of 10 pointsReturn to CIFF 2014 Coverage
1 hr. 46 min.
Crime, Drama, Mystery
Fan Liao, Lun Mei Gwei, Xuebing Wang