By ALEXANDRA CHENG —
Beautifully shot and immensely captivating, “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” a 2014 film written and directed by Diao Yinan, is well deserving of the prestigious Golden Bear Award it won at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival.
The unconventional filming techniques, stunningly composed shots, and scenes stylistically reminiscent of “film noir” distinguish “Black Coal, Thin Ice” from a more typical crime-drama action flick.
Award-winning actor Liao Fan plays the male protagonist Zhang Zili, a former detective investigating a series of murders that occurs between 1999 and 2004. Having succumbed to alcoholism since the first case in 1999 and subsequently demoted to a security guard, Zhang obsessively continues to investigate Wu Zhizhen, played by Gwei Lun Mei, a female clerk at the local dry cleaners, and her connection to the murders, in more of a vigilante role.
Zhang and Wu are both idiosyncratic, complex characters that, thanks to Liao and Gwei’s impeccable acting, are effectively transformed into realistic, believable, relatable people. Good acting appears effortless; viewers do not notice any inconsistencies in characters’ behavior and accept their actions as believable within the diegetic world that Diao sets up which speaks volumes to the actors’ flawless performances and skill.
What the viewer does notice when watching “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is the unique lighting. Arguably the most distinctive feature of this film, the use of vibrant solid colors – blue, red, green, yellow, and pink – to light the scenes contrast the otherwise bleak landscapes and setting of the film.
The neutral colors that make up the city and the snow convey a sense of monotony that is broken by flashes of color used to light up the actors’ faces. There are instances when an actor’s face is lit half blue and half red to portray duplicity, or a face is lit with constantly changing colors to reflect the character’s turbulent emotions.
“Black Coal, Thin Ice” also employs unconventional filming techniques, particularly in the camera’s movements. In the scene indicating the time jump from 1999 to 2004, the establishing shot is one of a symmetrical tunnel.
The camera provides a vehicle’s point-of-view shot as it speeds through the tunnel and emerges into the open, snowy landscape. As the camera turns to focus on the motorized bicycle on the side of the road, the symmetry is broken to center on a character – a technique used several times throughout the film in different locations. It highlights the appearance of order before drawing the audience’s eyes to the reality of disorder – usually a drunk, worried, or disorderly character.
In addition, after focusing on the motorized bicycle, the camera provides viewers with a 360-degree shot of the surroundings, thus breaking the “180-degree rule” – a guideline that the camera should not pan more than 180 degrees in order to preserve the on-screen spatial relationships between characters or objects.
The slow pan of the scene builds up suspense as audiences expect to find something amiss in the desolate snow. But the scene reveals nothing but the road and snow, before zooming in on the bike and its fallen drunk rider once more – highlighting that the bicycle and its rider are the anomaly.
This film is wrought with such careful detail to the cinematography, enhancing the audience’s experience as a whole. Even in scenes with little progression in the plot, Diao successfully maintains the audience’s attention with these aesthetically stimulating shots.
The theme of appearances versus reality runs throughout the film, not just in the visuals but also in the title. The English title “Black Coal, Thin Ice” depicts the real, tangible facts of the murder case, thus strengthening the realistic aspect of the film, while the Chinese title “Daylight Fireworks” conveys the strong ethereal quality of the film in spite of the harsh realities of the murders.
“The difference between the two titles reflects the difference between reality and dreams,” Diao said in an interview with British film critic Tony Rayns in 2014. “If you haven’t yet seen the film, the English title proposes a sharp contrast, but that sharpness ferments into something else as you watch the film and see how the facts of the case fit together…
“In using (‘Daylight Fireworks’), I’m obviously suggesting that Chinese people today are in dire need of that kind of catharsis,” which people use to shield themselves from the harsher aspects of the world around them, he said.
A film noir set in contemporary China, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is well worth the time to see. It is a magnificent blend of suspense, humor, and romance with action-packed scenes sprinkled throughout — all shot beautifully thanks to cinematographer Dong Jingsong and the gaffer.
However, this film is not a light-hearted watch; there are some gruesome scenes and it requires the audience’s attention to detail in order to follow the plot that, at times, seems to jump from scene to scene with little clue as to changes in time and location.
(Written by Alexandra Cheng; edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)