Black Coal, Thin Ice 白日焰火 (2014)


Director: Diao Yinan 刁亦男

Studio: Omnijoy 幸福藍海

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Crime / Thriller

Running Time: 106 minutes


In China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, the discovery of dismembered body parts in many local coal mines has police baffled. Detectives Zhang and Wang discover the remains are of a man named Liang  and deliver the unfortunate news to the dead man’s widow (surnamed Wu). In the course of investigating the case, Zhang is shot; unable to solve the case, injured, and his wife having left him, Zhang slides into a deep depression and leaves the police force.

Ten years later, Zhang has become an alcoholic, fixated on prior events. One day he runs into his old partner Wang and finds that there have been more murders that follow the same pattern as before; chopped up and discarded in coal. What’s more, the victims were killed with a pair of ice skates and dated the previous victim’s widow, Wu.

Obsessed with finding answers, Zhang begins following Wu, and in turn Wang begins following them. That is until one night, where Wang himself is slain by a man wielding skates…

Cold. If there’s one word that will stick with you after watching Black Coal, Thin Ice, it’s cold.  This is a film which can make you feel the desolateness of winter no matter how warm an environment you are in. Aside from the opening fifteen minutes outlining the background to the story, director Diao Yinan plunges the viewers into an icy, harsh environment. Characters slide, skate, and trudge through the harsh winter of China’s Heilongjiang province, surrounded by overcast skies and shadows cast by the swampy light of a street lamp or the fluorescence of neon signs. The audience are forcibly pulled into the depression which Zhang feels by Diao’s brief flirtation with the summer months at the start of the film and the reality of the winter that follows.

It’s atmosphere, more than anything else, which defines Diao’s film. The story certainly has intrigue, but it’s also somewhat abstract. Despite three viewings, we still had some points that were only fully understood upon reading others critiques. Although this will certainly please people who like to pick apart a film, for those who like to watch and then move on it’s likely to baffle as much as anything.

This is compounded by uneven performances from the two leads. While Liao Fan 廖凡 gives a fantastic performance as Zhang, Gwei Lun-mei 桂綸鎂 is dissapointing as Wu. It’s far to say she is not given much dialogue to work with, but in (justifiably) choosing to build mystery around the character, she strays too far into blank-faced nothingness which removes the emotional weight as her story develops.

But, really, it all comes back to the atmosphere. As many critics have said about Black Coal, Thin Ice, it is truly a neo-noir film.  The aesthetic, mystery, and abstract notions of good and evil are as perfect a representation of the genre as you’re likely to find in modern cinema.

If you like cinema that builds a perfect atmosphere through the visual medium, Black Coal, Thin Ice does not disappoint. Beyond that, it’s a less consistent, but still eminently watchable thriller.

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