“Black Coal, Thin Ice” (2014), written and directed by Diao Yinan, is a contemporary murder mystery set in Heilongjiang province in northeastern China. The movie is bleak, with most of the movie seemingly in gray scale with the occasional splash of harsh and unnatural neon. The color in the movie is parallel with the plot: dreary and unexciting with occasional but momentous deviations.

The movie begins with a severed hand found in a coal plant on one of the conveyor belts. Eventually the rest of the body is found scattered in frosty corners of Heilongjiang and a detective is called to the scene. Detective Zhang is the main character of the film but not necessarily the protagonist, as it is revealed, after the hand-in-the-coal case ruins him and his partner, that he has considerable demons.

After a brief montage of him trying and failing to develop any leads on the case the story flashes forward to five years later. Zhang has lost his job as detective and drunkenly runs into his former detective partner on a stakeout. The ex-partner is following a woman who is connected to murders of businessmen who had been previously been romantically involved with her. The common thread is that the woman is the widow of the man who had been determined killed and chopped up five years earlier. The ensuing plot is full of twists and while it starts somewhat slowly the latter half of the movie moves fairly quickly.

There is very little dialogue in “Black Coal, Thin Ice.” The little dialogue that does go on is frank and critically important but is far too brief to make any of the characters feel very personal. A vast majority of scenes in the movie do not give the viewer any glimpse of the characters’ personalities, while the few that do mostly portray the characters somewhat negatively.

Aside from a few surprising moments of goofy dancing Detective Zhang is portrayed as troubled and obsessive. He is consumed by the case and began his investigation of this woman from afar before becoming entangled in her life.

The woman prompts sympathy throughout the film, from the beginning when she finds out her husband has been killed and cries, to when she is groped by her boss at the laundromat yet appears numb and distant. The few instances when she and Zhang go on dates or kiss, the woman seems uninterested but at the same time does not resist his advances.

Her passivity makes these interactions somewhat uncomfortable to watch especially when most movies feature highly choreographed scenes when the characters end up finally getting together. The dynamic between them is awkward and unnatural, further adding to an emotionally disconnected movie.

The movie begins, dropping you right into the plot with no buildup or any obvious giveaways into the background of the story or any of the characters. The end is equally abrupt, and while there is a conclusion it feels as if the movie has about 20 minutes remaining to wrap everything up nicely. The parallels between the very beginning and very end do not stop there; the desolate lighting interrupted by the colors and sounds of fireworks brings the movie full circle.

The setting was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. Heilongjiang province in northeastern China provides an interesting backdrop for “Black Coal, Thin Ice” and adds to the undeniably compelling plot. The harshness of the dark coal, grey concrete, and ever-present snow and slush makes every action that is not mundane or dismal even more salient.

However the distant and, frankly, unlikable characters make it very difficult to truly be invested in the events that unfold. The plot is compelling enough in itself to make the film watchable and borderline enjoyable.

(Written by Theron Simpson; edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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