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February 14, 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 7:33 pm

Black Coal, Thin Ice
FEBRUARY 13, 2014
Scott Foundas

A dissolute former detective, a trail of dismembered human remains, and a widow with a dark secret set the stage for a bleak but powerful Chinese film noir.

The spirits of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain course through “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” a bleak but powerful, carefully controlled detective thriller in which — as with all the best noirs — there are no real heroes or villains, only various states of compromise. A most curious hybrid of genre movie and art film, drenched in neon and wintry industrial bleakness, this third feature by the gifted mainland Chinese director Diao Yinan reps a significant advance in scale and craftsmanship over his festival favorites “Uniform” (2003) and “Night Train” (2007), with the potential to penetrate modestly further into the commercial sector.

Diao, who began his career as a screenwriter for director Zhang Yang (“Shower,” “Spicy Love Soup”), first showed an affinity for noir in his debut pic, where an aimless young man working in his family’s laundry business took to impersonating a police officer. (In a sly nod to that film, the plot of “Black Coal” also comes to revolve around a laundry shop and a particular unclaimed item.) This time, the cops are real, but there is much that is not as it first appears in Diao’s tale of a grisly crime from the past that returns to haunt the characters a half-decade later.

The setting is a northern Chinese factory district, circa 1999, and the coal of the title is where a set of dismembered human remains turns up in the movie’s opening scenes. The dead man is identified as Liang Zhijun, a worker in one of the local plants and husband to a laundry worker, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei). Enter a no-nonsense detective, Zhang (Liao Fan), who quickly identifies a suspect. But what should be a routine arrest goes awry, turning into one of the more imaginatively staged shootouts in recent movies — by turns comic, absurd and, finally, brutally efficient.

We then jump forward five years to find Zhang, still traumatized by the carnage of ’99, drunk and dissolute, having abandoned the force for a post as a security guard. In a chance encounter with his former partner, he learns that two factory workers have newly turned up dead and dismembered in eerily similar fashion to the earlier case. At which point, Zhang decides to begin his own investigation, starting with the widow Wu herself. Her late husband, it seems, isn’t the only man who’s met his maker in the last five years after getting close to her, and Zhang’s deductive nose, when it isn’t buried in alcohol, tells him something is amiss. So he becomes a customer of the laundry shop, and takes to following his femme fatale by night (so clumsily that she quickly catches on to him).

Whether or not she’s a lethal “black widow,” Wu Zhizhen is clearly a woman of secrets, and Gwei (star of the 2012 Taiwanese hit “Girlfriend Boyfriend”) has just the right dark, glassy-eyed beauty to play a woman trapped by desperate circumstance. (In the 1940s Hollywood version, Lana Turner or Ida Lupino would have made a good fit, while it’s easy to imagine Bogart or Mitchum in the detective role.) Exactly how and why Wu suffers is something we discover gradually, as Zhang does, in the movie’s second half. And the more the pieces of the puzzle come together, and the closer Zhang grows to Wu (on and off the job), the richer “Black Coal, Thin Ice” grows in its air of pulp romantic fatalism.

Throughout, Diao maintains an impressive mood of unease and encroaching danger, which carries the film forward even when the plotting becomes a touch too knotty for its own good (though nothing that mystery buffs won’t be able to parse with a few minutes of concentrated reflection). Besides, a certain opacity may well be part of Diao’s grander design. Though it is a less overtly political film than Jia Zhangke’s recent “A Touch of Sin,” “Black Coal, Thin Ice” does proffer a similarly dark and blood-soaked portrait of a China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources and everyone is standing on dangerous ground. All that’s missing is for Diao to have someone tell our forlorn hero, “Forget it Zhang, it’s China.”

Together with d.p. Dong Jinsong (“11 Flowers”), Diao devises many inventive approaches to scenes, from the dazzling tracking shot that carries us forward from 1999 to 2004, to an unexpected fireworks finale that lends “Black Coal” a perfect absurdist punctuation. Art director Liu Qiang enhances the mood of working-class despair with a series of wonderfully seedy bars, police stations and assorted other holes in the wall.

Berlin Film Review: ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2014. Running time: 108 MIN. Original title: “Bai ri yan huo”

(China-Hong Kong) An Omnijoi Media Corporation Co./Boneyard Entertainment China (BEC)/China Film Co. presentation. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Vivian Qu, Wan Juan. Executive producers, Bu Yu, Daniel Jonathan Victor, Han Sanping, Hong Tao, Han Xiaoli. Co-producers, Shen Yang, Zhang Dajun.

Directed, written by Diao Yinan. Camera (color, HD), Dong Jinsong; editor, Yang Hongyu; music, Wen Li; art director, Liu Qiang; sound, Zhang Yang.

Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Wang Yu Ailei, Su Lijuan, Ni Jingyang. (Mandarin dialogue)

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 7:14 pm

Black Coal, Thin Ice
12 February, 2014
By Dan Fainaru

Dir/scr: Diao Yinan. China. 2014. 106mins

The unadorned, unflattering, raw and lifelike portrait of a mid-size Northern Chinese town in winter, all frozen and covered in thick layers of snow, is the best thing in Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo), the new film from Diao Yinan (Night Train). What’s missing is a solid, well-told plot to keep audiences alert and justify the painstaking trouble taken with the background.

The film is a mystery story presented almost exclusively from the point of view of an ex-cop, and dealing with a series of grisly murders, with the victims’ bodies chopped to pieces and spread over a large territory, hundreds of miles apart. It is an interesting premise but its credible, authentic background, cannot fill the yawning gaps left time and again in the plot.

Divorced policeman Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is seriously wounded and two of his colleagues are killed while attempting to arrest a couple of culprits suspected of having committed the first in this series of crimes. Once released from hospital after a long convalescence - or so it seems - he is retired from the force, has to take on a job as security guard and drowns his frustration in alcohol.

Five years later he understands, after meeting Wang (Yu Ailei), an old colleague who is now a police inspector, that more crimes of the same kind had been committed and gone unsolved and decides to go investigating on his own, if only to give a sense to his empty existence.

All the victims seem to have been connected at some time with the same woman Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei, looking forlorn, lost and melancholy) who works in a small laundry. He tries to approach her, inevitably falls in love with her but, once a lawman always a lawman, and he goes on digging for new facts and information that might reveal the identity of the truth.

From this point on, major leaps of faith are required to follow the story. You have to ignore all the red herrings strewn throughout; the dead men identified beyond the shadow of a doubt, who are apparently not so dead, and a lead suspect arriving in the story out of thin air. Once the case seems to be solved, there is a coda, the plot twisting itself around once more for the final revelation, before ending in a spectacular display of fireworks.

With the help of an experienced script editor in pre-production, the same story with the same ingredients, but put in a different order, (and with some more work on characterization) could have the potential of turning this film into a real detective story, with the vast variety of characters revealed through the investigation turning out to be as relevant. For suspense and tension, the structure of each scene would need to be altered and the flow of information going from the screen to be changed as well.

As it is now, the one thing that an audience can hope to latch onto is the realistic feeling of each frame, offering the equivalent of a visit to one of the more remote and less fashionable corners of China, at one of the less attractive times of the year.

Production companies: Jiangsu Omnijo Movie Company

International Sales: Fortissimo,

Producers: Vivian Qu, Wan Juan

Executive producers: Bu Yu, Daniel Jonathan Victor, Han Sauping, Hong Tao, Hang Xiaoli

Cinematography: Dong Jinsong

Editor: Yang Hongyu

Production designer: Liu Qiang

Music: Wen Zi

Main cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebin, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 6:59 pm

Black Coal, Thin Ice

2/12/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
A fascinating exercise in style that will entrance the critics and leave audiences scratching their heads.

Chinese director Diao Yinan sets a stylish film noir among ordinary people in the provinces.

Perhaps the most innovative of the Chinese films creating buzz in Berlin, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a salute to the classic Hollywood film noir, an exciting stylistic tour-de-force in which writer-director Diao Yinan combines the wry humor of his debut film Uniform with the bleakness and pessimism of his 2007 Night Train. But in spite of all these nice things, as a detective story it verges on the incomprehensible, which will be a serious drawback to distribution. Sophisticated audiences will enjoy its strange atmosphere as they try to puzzle out plot and characters.

In 1999, a strange-shaped package in a dumpster turns out to be a human body part. Another piece surfaces in a coal factory. Someone has been chopped to bits and his remains are turning up all over the province, in places too remote for a single murderer to have scattered them in one day.

Enter detective Zhang (Liao Fan), a comical figure behind a drooping mustache. We have glimpsed him earlier in a hotel room, where he has a last fling with the wife who is divorcing him. After an absurd tussle at the train station, she departs, leaving him alone with an alcohol problem.

Called in to investigate, he and his team identify the murder victim as a simple man whose job was to weigh trucks laden with coal. They corner two suspects in what might be a gay punk hair salon, but botch the arrest so badly that two policemen are killed.

We catch up to Zhang in 2004, lying dead drunk on an icy road. He’s working as a security guard now, but a chance encounter with his old colleague Capt. Wang (the warm Yu Ailei) draws him back into a case remarkably similar to the last. The police are staking out Wu Zhizhen (played by young Taiwanese star Gwei Lun Mei), widow of the murdered coal weigher in the case five years ago. She is linked to two fresh murders.

Though he’s no longer working for the police, Zhang starts hanging around the dry cleaners where Zhizhen quietly works in a boring job. Sleuthing turns to awkward courtship, and he invites her to go skating in an eerie night scene pulsating with danger, as they twirl around the ice on skate blades sharpened like knives. But by now he’s hooked on the mousy femme fatale, and even another grisley murder can’t break her spell. Their attraction climaxes in more ways than one while they’re dangling inside an immobile cable car, in a Hitchcockian scene spiked with eros and tension.

But Diao is up to much more than a simple homage to the masters, and his screenplay turns the traditional noir ambience upside down by setting the story among the humble and lowly members of contemporary Chinese society. If the plotting was only more coherent and audience-friendly and the story-telling more disciplined, the film’s extraordinarily complex atmosphere would be irresistible.

With her downcast eyes and hands busy folding laundry, Gwei (Girlfriend/Boyfriend, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) makes an odd Dark Lady. She has more the appeal of an ordinary woman who has blurred the line between good and evil.

Liao, whose work ranges from the award-winning Green Hat to Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac, plays Zhang in the classic mold of the unslept, unshaven hard-boiled detective who, despite appearances, figures out the most arcane mystery in the final reel. (Warning: this is more than many film-goers are going to be able to do.) His mellow face lends itself to comedy, for instance in a delicious scene of him chasing after Zhizhen on skates and slipping on the ice. But the film also gives him a chance to grapple with big themes like love and betrayal and to vent a desperately human side that is poignant without being sentimental.

Shooting on snow-covered streets and underpasses, in huge factories and neon-lit gambling dens, cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s images are strikingly original, casting the whole story in a unique filmic space hovering between dreams and reality.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Omnijoi Media Corp., Boneyard Entertainment China, China Film Co
Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang
Director: Diao Yinan
Screenwriter: Diao Yinan
Producers: Vivian Qu, Wan Juan
Co-producers: Shen Yang, Zhang Dajun
Director of photography: Dong Jinsong
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Production designer: Liu Qiang
Music: Wen Zi
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films
No rating,106 minutes

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