To describe Diao Yinan’s film noir “Black Coal, Thin Ice” as a simple movie would be vastly inadequate as it is nothing less than an immersive cinematic experience. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014 and received the Golden Bear, the highest award, yet a casual viewer might be deterred by the struggle to keep track of the characters and parse the convoluted plot.

The cinematography, acting, and stylistic choices of the movie work together to create a cohesive and riveting mood that can most accurately be described as discomfiting. Set in 1999 and 2004 in a bleak and perpetually snow-covered coal factory region in northern China, the story follows the awkward and creepy Detective Zhang (Liao Fan) on his path to find himself, love, and the answer to the crime that ruined his life.

The story begins slowly, with a series of shots tracking a small package being carried along with a shipment of coal, eventually found by a factory worker and revealed as a disembodied human arm.

Zhang is introduced with a lackluster sex scene that fades into the image of his apathetic-looking wife at a train station. She reminds him to sign the divorce papers, and he responds by assaulting her in a fit of rage or passion – it is unclear.

Later, Zhang and his colleagues track two suspects to a hair salon and detain them. The place is awash with pink neon lights and pastel colors, likely the brightest moment in this chromatically devoid film. What follows is a comically nonchalant/awkward shootout.

The camera then takes us on a single extended shot during which five years pass and we discover Zhang completely drunk and passed out on a snowy street. His pathetic persona is driven home when a random man comes by and steals his motorcycle.

He has given up his detective work and taken a job as security guard, but finds himself reconnected with the case that ended his career when he runs into his old partner who is staking out the latest person of interest. Wu Zizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), the widow of the first victim, is now connected to two further murders committed in the same style.

Zhang begins his own investigation and becomes enthralled with this femme fatale, clumsily following her around like a stray dog. Unsurprisingly, she notices and asks him to stop. Unsurprisingly, he ignores her request and his investigation becomes laden with awkward courtship and sexual tension (instigated by Zhang and mostly ignored by Wang). The relationship culminates in an uncomfortably coercive sex scene high above the city’s dreary landscape.

In true film noir fashion, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” has few clear lines, neither those that define boundaries, nor those that mark progress. The characters are brutally honest reflections of our human condition, containing just enough good and bad to prevent us from forming a definite opinion on them. The plot is disjoint, convoluted, and often seems to run into dead ends, almost as if the writer is trying to figure it out as it is happening.

The film is further punctuated by absurdist scenes that seem to remind us to not take life too seriously. Many scenes are taken in long singular shots that give a viewer the impression of standing or walking right beside the characters, further ingraining the terrible normality of the story.

Diao Yinan’s work left an entire classroom of highly educated college students in a state of confusion and unease. It may be a masterpiece for movie buffs and entertaining to those who are prepared for its obscurity, but I would not recommend it for a casual movie night.

(Written by Julius Kellinghusen, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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