The Chinese murder-mystery thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” written and directed by Diao Yinan, is set in the cold winters of Heilongjiang province of northern China. Even though coal and ice do not directly develop the story, their role in the plot is subtle and indispensable, making the English title of the movie resonate with the reality it aims to portray.

The Chinese title on the other hand translates to “Daylight Fireworks.” In an interview with film critic Tony Rayns, Diao said that it represents the fantasy side of the film. Additionally, the Chinese title also plays a crucial role for the unsuspecting viewer, when toward the end, all of a sudden the title makes sense in context, giving the viewer a warning that the climax has arrived. This role of the title is one I was not expecting, and found particularly interesting since it added to the experience of watching the film.

Liao Fan’s character Zhang Zili is a refreshingly non-traditional hero: an alcoholic ex-cop who is a borderline degenerate. Liao plays the role unassumingly, fitting right in from his opening sex scene to his late show of peculiar dancing. The female protagonist, Wu Zhizhen, is played by Gwei Lun-Mei. Gwei grew into Wu’s every little character development, and as a viewer who does not understand Chinese, I did not have to read the subtitles to understand Wu’s emotions because Gwei portrayed her effortlessly.

The movie begins with a brief period in 1999 where Zhang is a detective working on a murder case involving dismembered body parts across the coal factories of Heilongjiang. Wu is introduced as an introverted laundromat clerk, who is the recent widow of the murder victim Zhang is investigating.

The movie then skips to 2004, where majority of the film is set, and is a consequence and development of events that took place in 1999. Zhang and his ex-partner encounter the same type of murder that ended Zhang’s career in 1999 and pushed him to degeneration and self-destructive behavior. Zhang cannot help but get involved in the investigation, which leads them to Wu as the primary suspect. Zhang and Wu develop a relationship, which leads to many more secrets.

Wu’s character development through plot of the movie is deep, unanticipated and fatefully circular, and one of the movie’s key inviting aspects. At first, she seems plain. The viewer sympathizes with her plight initially, but through the course of the story, one becomes more wary of her character’s intentions, unsure if she is the “good guy” we are rooting for or the bad guy whose downfall we are desperate to see. In the end however, after learning more about her, the viewer is likely to once again sympathize with her, even when such a reaction might seem contradictory and unwelcome.

This movie offers more than its thrilling narrative with constant and unexpected twists. The camerawork focuses the scenes and placement of characters in a fashion which highlights and amplifies the plot being conveyed.  The cinematography of the film switches between zoomed-in focus on small, meaningful details and a general shot of everything from a distance, as if from a third-party’s view and perception of the scene.  The constant switch in pace of the scenes fits well with the fast-moving storyline, so as not to overwhelm the viewer. The film is set primarily in dark evenings, allowing for light to play an important role.

One of my favorite scenes, especially because it is quite inconsequential and yet enjoyable, is when Zhang is passed out drunk off the road, and a stranger comes along to help him. The scene has an unexpected turn, consistent with the rest of the film, and has cinematography that even an untrained eye can appreciate.

As someone from a different culture, I found the cultural norms in the film particular intriguing. In some instances, I was unsure if I was interpreting the scenes and dialogues in the right fashion. For example, Zhang is aggressive with his female companions on multiple occasions, and I could not decide if that was just furthering Zhang’s character development, or if such was the natural cultural norm and thus was not perceived as noteworthy.

This is the first foreign film I have seen, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s complete with mystery, interesting characters, beautiful scenery, and some dark criminal activity. And if nothing else, you can look forward to at least three murders … or can you? Watch and find out for yourself, I would strongly recommend watching “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” and I rate it 8.5/10.

(Written by Manika Garg, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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