By ISABELLA SPECIALE —
Winner for best film and best actor at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014, Chinese director Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is a cinematographic triumph. But when it comes to plot, the film is characterized by overwrought melancholy and overplayed attempts at suspense. Although the film cannot necessarily be categorized as predictable, the plot is played out and slow-paced, making the film less thrilling and more plodding.
Set in the bitter cold and gloomy winter of Heilongjiang province in northeastern China over the course of multiple years, the film follows the investigation of a series of similar murders. Two detectives, one played by award-winner Liao Fan, join forces after initially being unable to solve the crime in 1999 for one last attempt at finding the killer. The introduction of a love interest and potential suspect, overacted by Gwei Lun Mei, leads the two detectives closer and closer to the murderer.
This plot is nothing new though. And although Liao plays his character to perfection, it is the lack of originality in the storyline that ultimately diminishes the attempted suspense. Reminiscent of the first season of “True Detective,” but without the gut-wrenching suspense and terrifying storyline, this film is just about another boozed-up ex-detective who gives solving a crime one last shot.
It becomes clear, however, that much of the suspense and drama is lost on English-speaking audiences due to the interesting differences in titles. Retitled ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ for Western releases, the film is originally titled “Bai Ri Yan Huo,” (“Daytime Fireworks” in English). This title in Mandarin represents a critical plot point in the film, where the identity and motives of the killer are illuminated as a result of miraculously linked clues. But to audiences watching the film as “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” that shift in momentum is entirely lost.
That being said, however, where the plot is lacking, the cinematography of the film justifies all awards won. The film is victorious in portraying the monotonous industrial life characteristic of northeastern Chinese provinces, and serves as a fascinating window into the neon-lit, snow-covered lives of its characters. The quality of directing is nothing short of award-winning, and the long, soundless shots of second-tier characters bring a life to the film that Gwei and Liao cannot.
It is the lack of a prominent soundtrack until the final scene of the film that comes to serve as both a major success of the film as well as its downfall as a thriller. It is long, soundless shots of secondary extras in neon-lit cement buildings that give the film its artistic beauty. These are the lives, those of workers trapped in industrial coal country, which draw you into the film. There is a small-town feel to their interactions, despite the sprawling industrial setting.
It is exactly this small-town feel that makes the investigation somewhat unrealistic, however. With the ability of the detectives to find perfect connections between minute clues in this sprawling Chinese landscape, with minimal resources and manpower, the investigation is hard to believe and hard to follow. It is often unclear how Liao’s character draws connections between many of the clues, and, more importantly, how the killer could ultimately be found so easily.
Ultimately, the film is worth watching more for the visual appeal than anything else. In terms of finding a good thriller, this film is nothing new or exciting, but the performance by Liao combined with Diao’s brilliant directing makes it a worthwhile watch.
(Written by Isabella Speciale, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)