Film Review – Black Coal, Thin Ice

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This year, Glasgow’s Chinese Visual Festival screened Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) at the CCA, a film that beat Boyhood in Berlin for the Golden Bear award back in 2014. This crime-thriller mystery follows an ex-detective Zhang (Liao Fan) and his partner as they investigate a series of murders that left body parts scattered across a factory district in Northern China. 

Before the viewing, Black Coal was introduced alongside context claiming that, despite China’s tradition of censoring cinema, the film was shown in cinemas across the country, which, alongside its accolades, is perhaps an explanation for its huge popularity amongst Chinese audiences. Despite the political climate it was released in, the film is decidedly critical in the brief moments where it reveals belittling misogyny (particularly towards Wu Zhizhen (Kwai Lun-Mei), this noir’s femme fatale), the dreary life of the working class and the impact of police corruption (perhaps aided by Zhang’s status as an ‘ex’ detective, which places his misdemeanours outside of official practice). If anything, the film is as much about its eerie environment as its troubled characters.

Visually, the film is stunning: shots are interestingly framed with a precision that often leaves much space around its characters, accumulating a chilling sense of isolation. Monotone noir is twisted with neon signage; technicolour shop fronts and pastel interiors create an overwhelming sense of the cold. It was difficult to not sit shivering in the (admittedly uncomfortable) seats of the CCA Cinema whilst watching this lonely, strange detective navigate such a bleak environment in his enormous winter coats. As a self-titled drunk without much purpose, we follow the morally reluctant detective Zhang in a gradually revealed case as he is distracted by its every twist – particularly the question of where the widow of the first murder victim lurks. The dialogue is equally cold and essential. Plenty of Black Coal’s dysphoria lies in gloomily exchanged looks between its characters, smatterings of dark humour and sudden outbursts of violence that snap the audience to attention with audible gasps. A particular highlight was an imaginatively staged shootout that combined all three of these elements.

Characters within the film are both convincing and weird yet rarely likable, conveying an awkward, often surreal mood. At times, it was difficult to develop any attachment to its protagonists because there were almost too many pauses between speech and seemingly little indication of character’s intentions or emotions, such was the frostiness of their delivery. Curious scenes interrupt the flow of the narrative; at one point, a horse stands unexplained in the lobby of the police station – later, Zhang explodes out of his murky temperament into a chaotic dance. In fact, any feelings of discomfort from these absurdist moments might be equally construed as intentional in creating such an unsettling atmosphere. 

Overall, the film’s carefully crafted tone demonstrated Yinan’s combined talents of screenwriting and directing, leaving his audience with almost more questions by the end of the film than they had in the beginning. 

[Sophie Wilbraham – she/her – @sophiewilbers]

More information about the Chinese Visual Festival in Glasgow can be found here: http://chinesevisualfestival.org/.

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