Set in contemporary northern China, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is a film noir in which suspended, alcoholic detective Zhang Zili, played by Liao Fan, attempts to solve a series of murders where the victims’ dismembered bodies are scattered across coal plants.

Surrounded by personal turmoil — a recent divorce — Liao’s life becomes worse after he is shot while investigating a murder that left the victim’s body parts spread across the province by coal trains. His injury, coupled with his divorce, drives Liao to alcoholism, which costs him his badge and his dignity.

Five years later, after identical murders begin to take place, Liao and his ex-partner (Wang Xuebing) restart the investigation of a crime that ended their careers. Liao’s pursuit of the truth leads him to the wife of the first alleged victim, widowed laundry worker, Wu (Gwei Lun Mei), who blurs the lines between love and crime.

The film is unique in the emphasis it places on its female character, Wu, whose fragile nature is matched by her dangerous side. Gwei offers a good, but not astounding, performance, showing that murder cannot be typecast.

Liao was convincing in his role as Zhang, and stood out as the film’s top actor. He was convincing as an alcoholic, and offered a mixed range of emotions that made him relatable and likable despite his flaws.

While the acting was good, it is the directing that makes this movie stand out.

Director Diao Yinan presents a bleak, desolate China, as dark as the coal that drives its economy. Through dark shots, lit up only by the glow of neon signs, Diao depicts an environment devoid of hope.

Such is the atmosphere he believes is conducive to crime. “Black Coal, Thin Ice” offers a sympathetic lens for the dark souls who are a product of this environment. Tortured by depravity and feelings of loneliness, Diao’s characters are relatable, flawed and imperfect.

Diao’s cinematography also lends itself to an accurate depiction of real life, which he believes is dirty and complicated. Often panning to mundane shots, Diao shows life as it is: boring and without interest.

He deploys a minimalistic aesthetic, which shows the muddy nature of characters’ lives. Characters exist in public squalor, surrounded by poverty and corruption. They are denied the basic dignity and respect taken for granted in most societies.

And yet, it is this background that lends itself to a surprisingly dramatic story. In the desolate tundra of northern China, where people are beaten down by industry, crime and even the wintry weather, life perseveres. Human relationships are built and destroyed. Men and women alike continue to go to work, fighting an environment hell-bent on destroying them.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” is oddly a story of hope: a testament to the human will. His career ruined, his love interest entangled in his investigation, and constantly being derailed by false clues, Zhang continues to try and solve a murder that has gone unsolved for five years.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” succeeds in its attempt to make a film noir involving ordinary people. Diao’s characters are deeply emotional and complex, and he expertly crafts a bleak setting. His use of contrasting, off-center shots and dim lighting demonstrate master camerawork, which won him the Golden Bear (best film) at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival over the likes of “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” That being said, the story is gruesome and fails to offer much imagination in its crime. Diao’s ending is predictable, and I left more impressed with the acting than with the overall film.

Nonetheless, a good movie for fans of crime stories, realist plotlines and good cinematography.


(Written by Brandon Granaada, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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