Talking Pictures

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Black Coal, Thin Ice, Bai ri yan huo, China / Hong Kong 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on August 29, 2015

black-coal-thin-ice-poster

I saw this film at the same time as two friends and we had rather different responses. One liked it, one disliked it: I think I was the most impressed. That is along with the Berlin Film Festival where the film won the Golden Bear. So I have spent a little time considering what it is about the film that impressed me.

The film was written and directed by Yi’nan Diao and it is his third feature released internationally. Black Coal, Thin Ice shares some concerns and plot issues with his previous film Night Train (Ye Che, 2007).It is sited in classic film noir territory, though for much of the film it is not clear whether the protagonist is a seeker or victim hero. Likewise it takes time to get a sense of the murder plot and to identify the femme fatale.

The cinematography of Dong Jinsong and the Art Direction of Liu Qiang provide an excellent noir world. There are the shadowy and sometimes neon-lit visuals. There are the enclosing settings and the wintry landscapes. This is the environment where criminality and chaos abound: and the ambiguity is heightened by the many times that a view or a setting is not clearly placed with the developing plot. There is some very effective editing: in particular a cut in a long travelling shot that transports character and viewers across five years. This also caries across the angst and uncertainties that plague the protagonist.

I found the performances very effective. Zhang Zili plays the investigator Fan Liao, whilst Wu Zhizhen plays the woman, Gwei Lun Mei, who comes to obsess him. Both remain partly undeveloped characters, which makes the climax and resolution the more effective.

The film is the more ambiguous because it is full of scenes whose function in the plot is unclear. I think this was the aspect of the film that most annoyed my less enthusiastic friend. I think I am probably less concerned with linear plots than some audience members. I actually enjoyed the digressions and seemingly unmotivated sequences that occurred regularly in the film. But I also thought that they contributed to the themes of the film. Noir constantly explores the problems of the world of the [usually male] hero: but great noirs [say Force of Evil, 1948) equally explore the problems of the world of the audience that is watching the film. This is how I read Diao’s film: the investigation and relationships of the plot are set against the a contemporary China full of dislocations and contradictions.

Diao’s two previous films explored family dislocation and the pressures of internal migration: and there is a sense of these issues in this film. I suppose the challenge for the audience was to keep tabs on what related to the film’s official plot and what related to the world in which that is supposed to occur. Just to offer a prime example: apparently the film’s original title translates as Daylight Firework Club. But we only encounter this late in the film and the closing sequence deals much more with this event than it does with the official noir mystery of the film.

So I enjoyed it immensely, but if you go to see it [preferably at the cinema – it looks and sounds great] be prepared for a less than straightforward 110 minutes.

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