A man and a woman meet at a station, drenched in pouring rain. The man, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), is a stoic, saturnine figure—a gangster on the run with an eye-popping bounty on his head. The woman, Liu Aiai (Gwei Lunmei), is a fey, alienated “bathing beauty”—a discreet euphemism for a prostitute. Zhou wants his wife to give him up to the cops, so she can collect the bounty. However, she can’t come, so his associates send Liu instead. Liu offers herself as a replacement. She promises to turn him in, and then give the reward to Zhou’s wife.
After the station rendezvous, we jump into flashbacks. A crew of fractious gang members crowd in a moody hotel basement to discuss territorial rights. The meeting grows violent, splitting the gang into two competing factions. Things go from bad to worse when Zhou accidentally shoots a cop, and two warring factions become three when police jump into the fray. As the cops dress in plainclothes, Chinese film The Wild Goose Lake becomes a noir tale of shifting identities, where no one is sure about who to trust.
Director Diao Yinan plays fast and loose with the movie’s connective tissues. Due to frequent spatial and temporal jumps—flashback within flashback, perspective to perspective—viewers must pay close attention to follow the narrative thread, which connects successive scenes so flimsily that they’re left grasping. The Wild Goose Lake pays little mind to plot consistency, satisfying itself with exposition. The film lingers over images of Zhou and Liu in a sordid second-tier city: rain-soaked neon, twisting alleyways, gritty noodle shops, and percussive fight scenes.
This focus on setpieces makes the film increasingly surreal. One scene includes a seemingly disembodied head singing in a carnival tent, while another features people dancing to Boney M’s “Rasputin” wearing neon sneakers. Topping it off is when the cops take their manhunt to a zoo, firing gunshots that flicker in the night, revealing startled animal eyes. While these are beautiful sequences, we never learn why the characters need to traverse through these locations.
With a plot involving opaque motivations and shifting identities, The Wild Goose Lake needs to have a solid narrative framework to prevent confusion. However, its ellipses, some of which occur at crucial moments, keep viewers off balance. Diao may have intended the ellipses to make viewers feel the same confusion and paranoia as the protagonists, but this falls apart without strong characters that viewers can anchor on.
The tension between developing its plot and developing its characters is The Wild Goose Lake’s main flaw. Zhou Zenong is a blank-faced enigma with a noble motivation, though thin characterization makes him seem less a chivalrous stoic and more a passive apathetic. Gwei Lun-mei renders Liu Aiai better, giving her detached expression hints of depth that remain unfortunately unexplored. The side characters also get short shrift. Rival gang leaders the Cat Brothers never differentiate themselves beyond simple enemy gangsters, and Liao Fan’s Captain Liu feels underutilized as a conflicted policeman. As betrayal after betrayal mounts, viewers lose sight of what the characters want, and what they sacrifice to get it. With its characters never shaded in depth, the film can only gesture at deeper themes.
Knights and Courtesans in a World of Crime
The Wild Goose Lake depicts a world of fading chivalry, where only “the most despised people” retain noble character. In the film, the cops are as brutal as the villainous gangsters. They pose for pictures with corpses, shoot unarmed men, and disregard other crimes as they pursue Zhou. The harshest example of this occurs with a back alley rape scene, where Zhou punishes the perpetrator after the cops pay no mind.
In an interview at Cannes, Diao Yinan described The Wild Goose Lake as a morality tale that strives to give audiences a sense of a “traditional moral framework” that is “lost and falling by the wayside” as China modernizes. The film is set in 2012, when China was less surveilled than today—it is hard to imagine Zhou successfully hiding from the cops in a world where facial recognition AI captured a suspect in a throng of 60,000.
As China develops, the gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural, widen. Scenes of Zhou and Liu walking in front of billboards promising a gleaming future emphasize that the future has left them behind. Though Diao Yinan claims disinterest in social commentary, he describes noir as “the expression of a personal style when one is deeply disappointed with the society, the politics.” When questioned about the effect of censors on his work, he diplomatically responded, “it was all routine business…the film as it stands is pretty much as I imagined it, because it’s mostly just me telling the story of a particular incident.”
Perhaps this avoidance of overt politicization allowed The Wild Goose Lake through China’s censorship authorities without getting dinged for its harsh depiction of police. While noir movies often mix cops and gangsters together, Diao intends a morality tale that criticizes the loss of traditional morals in rapidly modernizing China. Zhou, the knightly and ill-fated gangster, is out of step in time, trapped in a world that does not seem to hold his sense of honor in any regard. By depicting the mass of gangsters and police as one and the same, the film contrasts its honorable but doomed protagonists with a technologically advancing, but morally retreating society.
With its focus on composing a visually striking noir mood at the expense of characterization, The Wild Goose Lake trades deeper insights for flash and verve. Without spending more time on developing the characters’ motivations, it loses momentum and focus. However, the film is undeniably beautiful; its strengths play into what makes cinema unique as an art form. Watch The Wild Goose Lake for its engaging tableaux of stylish setpieces—just don’t expect anything that breaks out of the boundaries of its genre.
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The Wild Goose Lake (Chinese: 南方车站的聚会)—China. Dialog in Wuhan Mandarin. Directed by Diao Yinan. First released May 18, 2019 at the Cannes Film Festival. Running time 1hr 53 min. Starring Hu Ge, Gwei Lun-mei, Liao Fan.