With a title like Black Coal, Thin Ice you're thinking that this has to be some kind of film noir, and you'd be right. Writer/director Yi'nan Diao literally gift wraps a gruesome murder that litters the victim's body parts at the coal power stations around several cities and provinces. When the police are working the case, two suspects fall into their lap and the ensuing bloody gunfight shuts the door on the case. Five years later, as a similar case emerges, the now retired detective (turned functioning alcoholic) is drawn back into the case by his former partner still on the force. This very familiar noir story is just really a blue print for Diao to experiment with the audience's expectations in both narrative and style. From the outset he's perfectly staging players in spaces, only to magnetise them and draw them together. Dry cleaners, service pathways in factories, buses that resemble sardine cans and dance houses; it becomes claustrophobic in every interior space. Be that as it may, Diao seems averse to creating tension. The music is almost absent, the camera has a comfortable orbit, slightly stand-offish from the action, and instead of cringing, jumping or gasping you're merely acknowledging what's happened.
Black Coal, Thin Ice though is exquisitely edited. There are some transitions that will cause cinephiles to chest bump punters sitting next to them. One particularly comes to mind as two partners are driving through that unnatural halogen yellow of a tunnel, pristine in its protection from the elements, focusing on its exit to an icy road; the camera carousels from the exit to the car and back again. In that pirouette we've jumped five years into the future and our main character who was warm and clean cut in the safety of the cabin is now a crumpled mess on the outside of the road.
Diao sends our detective and suspended police officer Zhang Zili (Fan Liao) back to Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei) whose husband Liang Zhijun (Xuebing Wang) was the original victim. Their entanglement as a result of this case is bizarre to say the least. From the outset we're introduced to Zhang Zili as a desperate and somewhat pathetic man with a confusingly placed scene where his ex-wife gives him goodbye sex and departs leaving him in a clawing, crumbling heap. Once he's shot in the line of duty at the end of this particularly heinous case he's opportunistic in his excuse to let himself go physically and to stupefy himself with booze. The man he is as a civilian is a dirty, boorish butt of a joke. While these things push him toward the case that will ultimately vindicate him, pitting this largely desperate and unlikeable man with the distant Wu Zhizhen feel like the film is crunching gears.
The primary shortcomings come as the veil is torn away from the enigma. Diao takes an excruciatingly long time to show the arduous procedural detail validating what had been so damned glaringly obvious to the audience. Not since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has a movie had so many unnecessary endings. The final insult is that Zhang Zili's way to celebrate this case being solved through interpretive dance. Yes, you read correctly.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is spectacularly shot, artfully edited but the digressions and dance cannot be unseen.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Yi'nan Diao
Written by: Yi'nan Diao
Starring: Fan Liao, Lun Mei Gwei, Xuebing Wang