By ANDREW SHEETS —
The discovery of dismembered body parts in one of Heilongjiang province’s many coal factories leads investigators on a bloody trail of murders in “Black Coal, Thin Ice” by director Diao Yinan.
Though the Chinese title is “Bai Ri Yan Huo,” or “Daytime Firework,” the freezing winter of northeastern China provides a perfect dearth of daytime for the noir-detective film.
Most of the action happens in the nighttime, where neon store signs reflect colorfully sinister lighting onto the snow of the otherwise unlit urban streets.
Liao Fan plays Zhang Zili, a cop investigating an initial murder in 1999, and the film follows his investigation. The plot moves quickly, with rapid scene changes contributing to the confusion surrounding the mystery, and can be difficult to follow.
A speedy investigation leads Zhang’s team to identify the remains as belonging to a coal worker, Liang Zhijun. Gwei Lun-Mei plays Wu Zhizhen, who is introduced as Liang’s quiet yet stunning wife who and a laundry worker. The trail leads to the identification of a suspect, and the case seems to be coming to a close when the film takes a bloody turn.
Five years later Zhang has left the police force and now works as a security guard, though he is still struggling to recover from his experiences. The stress from his old job has left him in a slump and he has developed a drinking habit.
An encounter with his old coworker reignites Zhang’s passion for detective work and brings the thriller back to life. Zhang learns that dismembered bodies have recently turned up in two similar cases. Here’s the catch: both of them were involved with Wu.
Zhang begins his own investigation, frequenting the laundry shop where Wu works as he tries to uncover how she may be related to the murders. As he comes closer to uncovering the truth, their lives become more intermingled as Wu’s secret life becomes unveiled.
The chilling brutality of this film extends beyond the violent shootouts and mutilated bodies. Even the budding romance between Zhang and Wu takes on a dark twist. Zhang acts more like a stalker than a lover, using his detective skills to coerce Wu into being with him.
Psychological elements play an important role in the film’s unconventional characterization and make the investigation much more emotionally charged.
The film is made darker by the constant sexual exploitation of Wu, who faces pressures from Detective Zhang, her boss, angry customers, and even her ex-husband. The film’s portrayal of Wu’s struggles succeeds in making her an object of pity, a sentiment seemingly at odds with her murderous role as the object of mystery.
To the same end, Zhang is a remarkably unsympathetic protagonist. He emotionally manipulates Wu for his own ends, and much of the sense of achievement from his successful investigations is overshadowed by his disregard for others.
In a way, the two protagonists play a zero-sum game in which no ending will leave viewers happy.
Throughout the movie, one has a sense of “stumbling around in the dark,” as Zhang later describes his investigation. Though scenes of the icy urban nighttime provide the perfect setting for the thriller, the film ends with the daylight, in one of the few, most memorable sunlit scenes of the movie, giving hope of a future in which Zhang is no longer stumbling around in that dark.
I recommend “Black Coal, Thin Ice” to anyone looking for a dark, dramatic, and violent thriller — it will leave you guessing until the end.
(Written by Andrew Sheets; edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)