Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Black Coal, Thin Ice

Reviews - Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Reviewed By John Porter

Black Coal, Thin Ice
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Sunday's offering was Bai ri yan huo/Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014, Yi'nan Diao), a Neo-Noir tinged slow-burn set in the frozen streets of Northern China. Zhang Lili (Fan Liao) is a cop going through a divorce as severed body parts begin appearing in coal chutes around his jurisdiction. Whilst working the case he is shot and his life descends into alcoholism, until years later echoes of the crime resurface and he begins to investigate once more. Vistas of snow and alternately drab and garish cityscapes are cut apart with lines of perspective to emphasize the many scenes of Lili's following of femme fatale Wu Zhizhen (Lun Mei Gwei), while the plot is layered slowly and thickly around them.

The world of Black Coal, Thin Ice is a cold, unforgiving one with a stretched, impersonal narrative punctuated by bursts of non-sensationalized violence. This is contrasted with a vein of strangely uplifting surrealism, at one point a horse being found standing in a business lobby, and later Lili breaking into an extended solo dance to a tinny radio. Diao also dwells with glee on obscure moments of profundity in the mundane, at one point Zhizhen being frogmarched to a crime scene and made to pose for police photographs, pointing at objects and furniture that have significance to past misdeeds with a blank expression on her face. Although there is a gritty, downbeat ambience to the story and setting, the background colour palette is often a wash of pink and orange neon, garish in tone yet soft in application as it seeps across the night. There is much night.

This is not a homely movie. We never see where our anti-hero lives, and the characters drift stoically around the complex mystery of serial killings and laundry. Although their goals of crime and its solving are definite, their ambitions seem vague. Deft allusions to classic Noir tropes are frequent, yet ultimately it is the baffling contradictions in the movie, and it's belief in the power of the Strange to provide a richness and depth that linger after the credits roll.

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