Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo): Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
A fascinating exercise in style that will entrance the critics and leave audiences scratching their heads.

Chinese director Diao Yinan sets a stylish film noir among ordinary people in the provinces.

Perhaps the most innovative of the Chinese films creating buzz in Berlin, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a salute to the classic Hollywood film noir, an exciting stylistic tour-de-force in which writer-director Diao Yinan combines the wry humor of his debut film Uniform with the bleakness and pessimism of his 2007 Night Train.  But in spite of all these nice things, as a detective story it verges on the incomprehensible, which will be a serious drawback to distribution. Sophisticated audiences will enjoy its strange atmosphere as they try to puzzle out plot and characters.  

In 1999, a strange-shaped package in a dumpster turns out to be a human body part. Another piece surfaces in a coal factory. Someone has been chopped to bits and his remains are turning up all over the province, in places too remote for a single murderer to have scattered them in one day.

Enter detective Zhang (Liao Fan), a comical figure behind a drooping mustache. We have glimpsed him earlier in a hotel room, where he has a last fling with the wife who is divorcing him. After an absurd tussle at the train station, she departs, leaving him alone with an alcohol problem.

Called in to investigate, he and his team identify the murder victim as a simple man whose job was to weigh trucks laden with coal. They corner two suspects in what might be a gay punk hair salon, but botch the arrest so badly that two policemen are killed.

We catch up to Zhang in 2004, lying dead drunk on an icy road. He’s working as a security guard now, but a chance encounter with his old colleague Capt. Wang (the warm Yu Ailei) draws him back into a case remarkably similar to the last. The police are staking out Wu Zhizhen (played by young Taiwanese star Gwei Lun Mei), widow of the murdered coal weigher in the case five years ago. She is linked to two fresh murders.

Though he’s no longer working for the police, Zhang starts hanging around the dry cleaners where Zhizhen quietly works in a boring job. Sleuthing turns to awkward courtship, and he invites her to go skating in an eerie night scene pulsating with danger, as they twirl around the ice on skate blades sharpened like knives. But by now he’s hooked on the mousy femme fatale, and even another grisley murder can’t break her spell. Their attraction climaxes in more ways than one while they’re dangling inside an immobile cable car, in a Hitchcockian scene spiked with eros and tension.

But Diao is up to much more than a simple homage to the masters, and his screenplay turns the traditional noir ambience upside down by setting the story among the humble and lowly members of contemporary Chinese society. If the plotting was only more coherent and audience-friendly and the story-telling more disciplined, the film's  extraordinarily complex atmosphere would be irresistible.

With her downcast eyes and hands busy folding laundry, Gwei (Girlfriend/Boyfriend, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) makes an odd Dark Lady. She has more the appeal of an ordinary woman who has blurred the line between good and evil.

Liao, whose work ranges from the award-winning Green Hat to Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac, plays Zhang in the classic mold of the unslept, unshaven hard-boiled detective who, despite appearances, figures out the most arcane mystery in the final reel. (Warning: this is more than many film-goers are going to be able to do.)  His mellow face lends itself to comedy, for instance in a delicious scene of him chasing after Zhizhen on skates and slipping on the ice. But the film also gives him a chance to grapple with big themes like love and betrayal and to vent a desperately human side that is poignant without being sentimental.

Shooting on snow-covered streets and underpasses, in huge factories and neon-lit gambling dens, cinematographer Dong Jinsong's images are strikingly original, casting the whole story in a unique filmic space hovering between dreams and reality.  

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Omnijoi Media Corp., Boneyard Entertainment China, China Film Co>
Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang
Director: Diao Yinan
Screenwriter: Diao Yinan
Producers:  Vivian Qu, Wan Juan

Co-producers: Shen Yang, Zhang Dajun
Director of photography: Dong Jinsong
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Production designer: Liu Qiang
Music: Wen Zi
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films
No rating,106 minutes