Combining the harsh setting of a brutal winter in China’s coal-mining regions, bloodied body parts scattered across an entire province, and troubled protagonist seeking redemption, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is a bleak thriller and interesting nod to a historical genre.

Winner of the 2014 Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear Award, the film features some darkly intriguing cinematography and also boasts a Best Actor Silver Bear Award for Liao Fan, who stars as the fallen detective Zhang Zili. Though a respectable attempt at a contemporary film noir, it could be said the film’s merits stop there, falling somewhat short of its bold promises.

After a disastrously unsuccessful attempt at making an arrest while pursuing a brutal murder case, Zhang is found, several years later, a drunken, lonely mess, working as a security officer. Having been left by his wife and now often arriving late as well as inebriated to his job, Zhang clearly cares little about his work and thinks little of himself until an old friend and former colleague approaches him with a string of new murder cases looking eerily similar to the case never solved several years back. Body parts are being found across the state amidst various coal transports, only this time with ice skates on the feet.

Somehow connected with all three murders is the original victim’s widow Wu Zhizhen, played by a lovely but stoic Gwei Lun Mei, who works at a laundry service. Wu becomes an object of great interest for Zhang, both within and beyond the case he has decided to pursue, taking on a sort of femme fatale role with an air of silent mystery and compelling darkness.

Without ever really saying much, she makes it clear early on that she is aware he is following her, leaving only a written yet stern warning to stop. But Zhang seems to cling desperately. Though it does not seem entirely certain whether it is to the promise of resolving a lost case or his pursuit of a semi-romantic obsession, Zhang seems bent on using the situation to redeem himself for the unlikeable mess he’s become.

Though the film is generally both narratively as well as cinematically interesting, there is an overall sense throughout the film of uncertainty over what it is we are looking at or meant to understand as audience members. While many shots seem intentionally and even artistically set to play with the lightness, or rather darkness, of a scene, it is unclear what exactly we are meant to be seeing or how it may fit within the purpose of a scene.

The story also takes the more interesting approach of refusing to define any of its characters as good or bad, rather they are just people who do as they do out of personal motivation rather than any sense of righteousness. While this can often lead to more complex or compelling characters and themes, it is here perhaps half the result of thoughtful writing and story development and half a lack of conviction or energy in the main actors’ performances.

Throughout the film, there are various odd inserts of humor and even sexual assault, including a seemingly random placement of a scene at a dance studio and another during which Zhang manhandles a woman at work in front of a crowd of laughing coworkers.

Though an element of strangeness and unease is expected and even encouraged in film noir, the attempts in “Black Coal” are at times more confusing and awkward than unnerving or exciting.

The promise of drama overall remains relatively unfulfilled. The story never fully builds and arcs but rather seems to move flatly from one scene to the next until it ends.

Though Zhang makes it through what, in retrospect, seems a fairly remarkable and terrifying macabre journey and opportunity for personal growth, he is never quite compelling enough to care much about or even share the journey with. And our femme fatale, while beautiful and with a distant air of knowing calm, doesn’t seem to change tone, facial expression, or body language and never really moves beyond her quiet, mousy stoicism.

Though a promising premise and respectable attempt at creating a darkness that is sincere while still grand, “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” like its protagonist, seems somewhat trapped in a quest for redemption and to live up to its potential.

(Written by Elizabeth Lee, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015

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