Diao Yinan’s most recent film “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” or as it is known by its Chinese name “Bai Ri Yan Huo” which translates to “Daytime Fireworks,” is an interesting mix of a fast-paced detective story with the slow-motion development of complicated but unemotional characters. The film is set in Heilongjiang province in China, a major coal-producing region in the northeast.

Despite the hard-to-follow plotline where the viewer is often responsible for making leaps to keep up with the story, the film is incredibly visually pleasing with its panoramic and wide-angle shots and its neon lights paired against the vast grayness of a freezing winter in northeast China.

The murder mystery framed by a dark, romantic drama begins in 1999 with a string of clichés involving a divorced cop’s investigation of body parts found in a coal plant that turn into an brief but intense shootout which ruins his police career.

Fast-forward five years to sad, lonely, drunk Zhang Zili, played by Liao Fan, as a disgruntled security guard who never let go of the case that ended his career. The story picks up when Zhang and his former partner begin investing a string of murders that are identical to the one from five years earlier. Zhang and his partner begin following Wu Zhizhen, played by Gwei Lun Mei, a laundry clerk who has romantic ties to all three murdered men and who is a key suspect in the case.

The role of women in the film is a subtle but important plot device that could easily go unnoticed. Throughout the film, there are few if any times where men do not have a financial or physical power over the women. There are very few instances where a woman even speaks other than in direct response to a man. The one notable instance a woman does speak on her own is when Wu repeatedly says to Zhang, “stop following me!”

This displays a further gendered aspect of the film which is also uncomfortably apparent: the way men in the film, particularly Zhang, feel entitlement over women’s bodies through both financial obligations and “romantic” endeavors. Even though Zhang is investigating Wu as a main suspect, he pursues her relentlessly even after she begs him to stop. This theme throughout the film makes for an even more startling plot twist that comes abruptly at the end.

An equally striking aspect was the cinematography. Something that struck me profoundly was that the film felt cold. The directors were able to convey the harsh climate through the wide-angle shots of the gray expanses and the elusiveness and lack of emotions of the characters left me with an impersonal connection to the characters that also added to the “cold” effect.

In contrast, there was a very strategic use of warmer and brighter colors to highlight specific lighter moments in the film. Examples of this include the red lighting inside a restaurant and the softer yellows during some of the dancing scenes.

Music was also used in these scenes to change the mood away from the normalized cool tones of the film. The light waltz playing in the background of an ice-skating scene and the upbeat tunes in a solo dance session were seemingly out of place, but somewhat necessary to give viewers a mental break from the darkness of the rest of the plot.

The director used recurring types of lighting, angles and locations to bring continuity to a sometimes jagged story line.

While the artistry of this film was evident, I do not think I was able to fully appreciate it the first time around. Because I had never seen a Chinese film before, I spent most of the viewing distracted by trying to figure out Chinese social norms and trying to follow a plot line that seemed to always be moving at inconsistent speeds. I think this might not be a best first Chinese film to watch, but I did benefit from seeing a different part of China, and the reality of the coal-producing region, which has a different style of life than major urban areas.

As an artistic experience, I enjoyed this film a lot. The use of bold color in contrast to dark shadows, and expanses of gray skies, made everything feel very vivid. The sharp angles used for close-ups and the wide-angle shots made the tense moments feel stronger and the big shots feel emptier and colder. If I had been focusing on the film purely to analyze this aspect of it, or if I had watched it a second time, I think I would have been able to get more out of it.

As a recent top prizewinner at the Berlin Film Festival, I would recommend seeing it, but with the stipulation of possibly doing a little research on the plot before diving into it.

(Written by Morgan Weidner, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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