Review: Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

You know any film that begins with a severed arm traveling down a coal chute is going to be a memorable one. Few directors are bold enough to open with such a morbid image: Diao Yinan is apparently one of them. But his unforgettable imagery is not limited to the grotesque. Taking place in a nameless city in China’s frigid north, the film is chock full of strangely, awkwardly beautiful scenes. I, for one, will never again hear the muted clack of skates on ice without thinking of this movie.

The hero of this dark thriller is the odd and enigmatic police officer Zhang (Liao Fan) whose primary come-on to women seems to be throwing himself at them (literally) and wrestling them to the ground. With such tactics, it’s not surprising that Zhang’s love life is nothing to envy–the movie begins with his wife serving him divorce papers. Shortly after, Zhang and his team begin investigating an unusual murder. In one day, workers find severed limbs in several coal stacks spanning a hundred miles. The case appears to end in a botched arrest that leaves Zhang injured, both physically and emotionally. Fast forward five years. Demoted to low level security work, the now constantly inebriated Zhang seems to have little to live for. Then one day he discovers that the case which had plunged him into his downward spiral has been reopened: two other bodies have been found dismembered in the coal stacks; the murderer is still at large. With renewed purpose, Zhang joins his old partner to finish what they had left undone.

At the heart of the mystery is a lonely, haunted laundry worker, the first victim’s wife (Gwei Lun Mei). In the course of his investigation, Zhang becomes involved with the melancholy, troubled woman. Their convoluted relationship is what elevates this film from a peculiar thriller to something more complex and unusual–though (thankfully) the film is too playful to aim for any heavy conclusions.

But despite its success at the Berlin Film Festival (where it won the Golden Bear award), Black Coal, Thin Ice is far from perfect: A crucial discovery relies on a detail that is a bit too conveniently revealed. A few plot points feel like (unintentional) red herrings. And some scenes are just downright random and weird and seemingly irrelevant (except that they do add to the film’s oddball tone and so can perhaps be forgiven). To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to make of this film when I first finished watching it. Did I like it? Did I even understand what was going on?

I think I do like it after all–because of those stark, suggestive, sometimes aggressive images I mentioned earlier. And I understand enough for the plot to sit well with me, as long as I remind myself not to probe too deeply. Over the years, I’ve discovered that the movies that end up sticking with me aren’t always ones I enjoyed initially. The most notable example of this is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. At first viewing I found the film disturbing and depressing and altogether too bleak. But for the next few days I couldn’t get it out of my mind; I even dreamt about it. Black Coal, Thin Ice is no Lust, Caution, but it still has a good dose of staying power.

(Screened at the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival.)