BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (2014)
Written and directd by Yi’nan Diao
Mandarin language with English subtitles
The year is 1999 and body parts are being found throughout Northern China at coal factories, all at the same time. Suspecting two brothers who work in the coal industry, the police confront the duo but they die in a fire fight with the police officers. Five years later, body parts are once again being found across the district but with the origial suspects dead, the trail leads the police back to a widowed woman who’s husband was the chopped up victim from 1999. Having resorted to alcohol for comfort since being injured in the original case and having divorced his wife, struggling ex-detective Zhang decides to get close to widow Wu and find out the truth about the murders before more people meet a grisly end.
Black Coal, Thin Ice, or Bai ri yan huo as it is known in its native country, is an Asian crime thriller that looks towards the neo-noir genre for its gritty murder mystery elements. With much of the film set in the harsh, bitter winter months, there’s little time for the joys of spring as the film throws the viewer straight into the disturbing scenes, from witnessing a severed arm carried upon the back of a coal truck to an eyeball floating in a customer’s noodle soup in the town’s diner. Between these grisly scenes and the moments of despair, as former detective Zhang attempts to woo dry cleaning employee Wu, there’s very little to be happy or upbeat about. Although the film is quite sombre due to its deadly plot, it isn’t without a sprinkle of comedy. Whether it’s police officers literally leaping onto their suspects or Zhang falling onto the ice on the outdoor skating rink, there are moments that are sure to bring a smile to your face. However, it’s soon back to business as Zhang attempts to uncover the secrets behind the case which has seen many of Wu’s former boyfriends die in the cold frost with all evidence sterilised by the ice.
The way Black Coal, Thin Ice is presented is very unrestricted in that it seems to follow its own beat. However, BLACK COAL, THIN ICE has a storyline that you can get involved with and still follow even if the scenes don’t exactly flow into one another as well as they could. The main plot to catch a killer is obvious and even though the route taken to tell the story is a bit wibbly wobbly, you can still work out the key moments that are unfolding on screen. The film is strikingly visual to watch with its frequent use of red lighting up the room. There’s quite a few scenes that feature red as well as other neon colours with a direct mention to the Daylight Fireworks Club, who’s name and flashing sign become quite a unique symbol for the film. Whilst these bright lights and strong colours certainly contrast the never-ending blue and white hue frost of the movie, there are many scenes of utmost beauty that have to be seen to be appreciated.
The film has a mixture of performances but Fan Liao is phenomenal as Zhang and really brings a likable personality to the determined, charming ex-copper. I wish I could share the same emphusiasm for Lun Mei Gwei as widow Wu, but her non-expressive face and lack of emotional character depth did nothing for me, even if it may have served the character well throughout.
Despite its slow meandering plot, Black Coal, Thin Ice certainly has its appeal with a striking style and presentation full of quirks.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is out now on Digital Download and DVD