Black Coal, Thin Ice (3 stars)

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Visually masterful, narratively confused third feature from Yi’nan Diao

In the wintery urban wilds of Northern China in 1999, dismembered body parts suddenly start appearing at coal factories and in dumpsters. Just as Detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) makes a major breakthrough in the case, he is involved in a botched arrest that results in the death of three colleagues. Five years later, the alcoholic Zhang is working as a bodyguard when he becomes embroiled in a fresh investigation involving Wu Zhizhen (the mesmerising Lun-Mei Gwei), the widow of the previous case’s victim, who is linked to two new murders.

Chinese filmmaker Yi’nan Diao’s Golden Bear-winning third feature (following Uniform and Night Train) is a visual masterpiece, blending traditional film noir sensibilities with an alien, industrial location to stunning effect. Cinematographer Jingsong Dong makes full use of his surroundings, filling the screen with evocative imagery both expansive and intimate: the excellent tracking shot that takes us from 1999 to 2004; ice-skaters circling silently against a darkening sky; an awkward, claustrophobic sexual liaison in a solitary cable car.

While such sequences underscore the difficulty of making genuine human connections in an anonymous environment, the film’s narrative identity is not as well defined as its appearance. Indeed, the convoluted plotting – which takes in both high drama and knockabout farce – may leave some audience members confused rather than beguiled. It could be inferred that Diao’s meandering screenplay is a comment on the transient, disconnected nature of life in the world’s most populated countries, and the secretive behaviour of the Chinese authorities, but any such social commentary is certainly not explicit.

In fact, underneath all that stunning window dressing Black Coal, Thin Ice plays like a straightforward police procedural, buoyed by the intense dynamic between Fan and Gwei and a visual inventiveness that makes far more of an impact than its story.

Selected release from Fri 5 Jun.

Black Coal, Thin Ice | trailer

Black Coal, Thin Ice

  • 3 stars
  • 2014
  • China
  • 1h 50min
  • Directed by: Yi'nan Diao
  • Cast: Fan Liao, Lun Mei Gwei, Xuebing Wang
  • UK release: 5 June 2015

In Northern China, a former detective (Liao Fan) reopens the murder case that had wrecked his career five years earlier. Golden Bear-winning crime drama, with somewhat convoluted plotting but stunning visuals, and fine performances from Fan and Lun-Mei Gwei.