When a movie is named Black Coal, Thin Ice, you can probably guess that it won’t be about unicorns and rainbows. As expected, director Diao Yinnan’s neo-noir mystery is as bleak and cold as the northeastern Chinese landscape it’s set in. Winner of the Golden Bear Award at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, the film is one of the higher-profile independent/artistic pieces that came out of China last year.
The film opens in 1999, when a police detective named Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) gets drawn into a case involving body parts found in coal shipments. Ultimately, the investigation leads to a dead end when Zhang and his colleagues try to detain suspects but end up in a gunfight instead (during which Zhang is injured).
Fast-forward to 2004 — after his injury, Zhang left the police force and is now a security guard who spends his time drinking and dawdling. One day, he stumbles upon his old colleagues on a stakeout. They are watching a woman named Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-mei) — the wife of the victim from that 1999 cold case. As it turns out, every other man she’s been with has mysteriously disappeared or been murdered. Zhang decides to bring some meaning into his aimless life by launching his own investigation into the matter. He follows Wu and begins to peel back layers of mystery left over from his 1999 case, one step at a time.
Zhang’s investigation proceeds with halfhearted suspense. The plot reaches key conclusions quickly, so quickly that we know there must be an upcoming twist because there’s still so much time leftover in the movie. When everything unfolds, it’s less “ah-ha” than “oh, okay, so that happened”. Whatever thrill that Diao meant to introduce was frozen in the winter air.
While Black Coal, Thin Ice didn’t contain a horribly thrilling plot, it remained acceptably captivating through its downtrodden tone and consistently frigid visuals. The film’s bleakness made it faintly reminiscent of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, with bit of brutal violence swished around in a baijiu bottle of emotional desolation. Shots of empty ice rinks, snowy roads, and gray streets provide a visual dimension to the characters’ emptiness. The cruel night and everlasting winter stare at out you from inside the screen and make you shiver.
Something else intriguing to note is how the film’s Chinese title is actually different from the English one. Its Chinese appellation (白日焰火 – bai ri yan huo) is literally translated as “daylight fireworks”, which conjures up a different visual from black coal and thin ice. Diao has stated that the English title represents reality, while the Chinese one represents fantasy — an explanation that conveys a high degree of artistic investment but is only partially expressed in the film. When you do see “daylight fireworks” in the film, it takes a bit of creativity to make a connection to “fantasy”. Maybe that’s Diao’s intention, but the reality/fantasy dichotomy was too hidden for my tastes.
If anything, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a movie you can remember for how it looked and felt, if not for what happened in it. It’s a piece that puts an appreciable amount of effort into being artistic and succeeds on some fronts, but not others — something that had fantasies for more but had to leave bits behind as a sacrifice to cruel, cold reality.
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Chinese: 白日焰火)--Directed by Diao Yinnan. First released February 2014. Running time 1hr 46min. Starring Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, and Wang Xuebing.