By GRAHAM McMILLAN —
In what amounts to the pinnacle of absurdity in “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” former detective Zhang Zili exchanges a knowing smile with a yet unknown woman before breaking into an uncoordinated, unrestrained dance. It’s a rare moment with music in an otherwise dark and complicated movie, and the audience is finally allowed to utter what they’ve been holding back for an hour and 45 minutes: WTF?!
For those lacking the self-control of a Queen’s Guard in London, however, this moment is not the first in which the winding story and seemingly laughable flourishes lead to an exasperated release of some kind.
Liao Fan, artfully depicting protagonist Zhang, and his colleagues seem locked in a competitive battle throughout the movie to draw the audience into the moment before making them as uncomfortable as possible. The kicker: they all won.
The director of the piece, Diao Yinan, is well considered, winning awards in Vancouver and Rotterdam for “Uniform” in 2003, in Buenos Aires, Warsaw, and Cannes in 2007 for his movie “Night Train,” and most recently in Abu Dhabi, Sydney and in Berlin where it won the prestigious Golden Bear for “Black Coal, Thin Ice” in 2014.
Though Diao’s work is overflowing with beautiful attention to detail and brilliantly subtle allusions, it is Diao’s collaboration piece, “Shower” that shows his talent for asking deeper social questions. A humorous critique of the changing values of Chinese society, it follows an affluent businessman who takes the time to revisit his roots in a soon-to-be-erased Chinese village after a misunderstanding about his father’s death.
Diao became well known for his innovative cinematography, his use of colors in otherwise dark and gritty films, and his ability to present truly complex stories reflecting societal observations with a subtle humanity.
His latest work centers on Zhang Zili, a detective who is called in to a coal plant when a body part is found. The murdered man is identified as Liang Zhijun and the likely murderers killed in an unsettlingly slow shootout sequence.
Years later, former detective Zhang goads his former partner into admitting that a similar murder has resulted in body parts popping up in coal plants around the country.
Zhang learns that the latest victim was in a new relationship with Liang’s wife, and just like that, Zhang begins a series of awkward exchanges with the lead suspect in the case.
His relationship with the awkward, strong character, quietly played by Gwei Lun Mei, develops as murders continue and the investigation intensifies.
“Black Coal, Thin Ice” adopts the mission of “Shower” with the addition of Diao’s intricate and ominous execution.
Diao subtly presents the dichotomy of a Chinese culture that has quickly industrialized to take a commanding position in the world economy while clinging falsely to old titles, such as communism, and values. He does this through transitions: steady camera to rolling, neon lighting playing closely with the dark, and the story evolving slowly before jumping forward rapidly.
“Black Coal, Thin Ice” also provides an in-depth look at the shortcomings of an increasingly mechanical China that labels itself otherwise. A story of contradictions and ridiculous scenes, the movie in all its twists attempts to make you feel out of place, uncomfortable, and confused. It does a magnificent job of this goal, even leaving you pensively troubled at the resolution of the movie.
The Daylight Fireworks club, after which the movie was named in Chinese, is presented as a place to drink, meet girls, and gamble, and hosts one of the most bizarre moments. After providing her testimony, the owner of the club gets into a bath fully clothed. Immediately uncomfortable, the audience is forced to ask, what type of sane person combines things so diametrically opposed.
Considering the final scene, the value of fireworks is the impressive lighting they emit and effects they create against the stark background of night. In the day, however, fireworks are stripped of their identity and forced to serve a different purpose altogether. In the movie, that purpose seems to be the disrespect of authority.
Positioning factory workers who quit to go into business as the victims, Diao seemingly presents a New Age hero in the detective before himself beginning a scathing investigation into the shortcomings of his man, including divorce, rape, and alcoholism.
Finishing with an absurdity to rival them all, it is the murderer with whom the audience sympathizes at the end of Diao’s award-winning work.
(Written by Graham McMillan, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)