“Black Coal, Thin Ice,” a gloomy film noir centered around a series of murders, paints a dark, desolate and depressing image of China and could easily be used as a successful anti-tourism tactic.

Featuring a mediocre cast and a slow, unriveting plot, the film drags viewers through the unraveling of a macabre mystery of dismembered body parts appearing in local coal refineries. The story follows the life of the two main characters, Zhang Zili (Fan Liao), a former cop, and Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), his love interest who is mysteriously linked to all of the murders.

The film was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in 2014 and was written and directed by Diao Yinan, who seems known for producing films with eerie aesthetics.

Set in the northern coal factory region of China during winter, the film begins in 1999, following Zhang’s life and his work as a policeman on this peculiar murder case. The film then jumps five years to Zhang as divorced, drunk, and fired from the police force, distraught over his meaningless life and the witnessed murders of his colleagues.

When Zhang comes back into contact with an old partner, he is re-introduced to a murder case identical to the one he worked on previously – featuring human limbs appearing in coal refineries – and is introduced to a woman, Wu, who seems to be at the heart of every murder. Despite a warning from his ex-colleague that every man she dates ends up murdered, Zhang becomes obsessed with her – stalking Wu either because of his infatuation with her or his need to solve the case, or both – it is unclear.

Focused on social realism, the mood of the film is strong and unwaveringly bleak, emphasized by dim lighting and a cold, snow-filled set. The plot seems a commentary on the despair of the working class with its dreary yet jarring plot progression: a monotonous storyline with random surges of action. The film highlights the desperation of the main characters, and the unnerving authenticity of the events make the film even less inviting to viewers.

The film clearly depicts Chinese culture as unemotional with sudden dramatic outbursts of pent-up expression from the characters such as dramatic weeping or hysterical laughing. The term “saving face” comes to mind when observing the film as the characters clearly repress emotion and any type of facial expression even in the midst of supposedly emotion-wrought circumstances.

Women are regarded as expendable objects of sexual desire – evident through the physical and/or sexual assault of almost every prominent female character in the film. Similarly, Wu’s character is not multi-faceted, and serves solely as a mysterious pawn for the rest of the plot to revolve around. She embodies both tropes of a femme fatale and damsel in distress – incapable of helping herself as victim of male aggression and control.

The film ends with an odd scene of Zhang dancing followed by random fireworks going off in town that seem to convey some sort of closure and Zhang’s acceptance of his dull life.

Overall, the filming is beautiful and skillfully made, but the storyline and the acting as well as the main dilemma are painfully slow and unexciting. The film is intriguing for the first few minutes – but then after a while of the same theme – it gets old. It took me a couple of tries to finish the whole film. On the whole, this dreary film lacks suspense, creativity and is not worth the watch.

(Written by Alley Bellack, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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