Six years after a case ruined the careers of two cops, identical murders begin again to bring them back out into the world to finally solve the mystery.
China has a lot of filmic potential and considering the size of its country, it feels like we do not receive enough artistic creations from the population leader. Around the large cityscapes are huge swathes of agrarian gorgeous land that is barely touched. With all the repression, poverty and negatives of the country, cut it and it’s bound to bleed noir. Diao Yi’nan’s does in this murder mystery that scars its ex-cop protagonist and continues to scratch it open for the next six years to make sure the wound is always raw. Sadly, the lack of disciplined filmmaking sags the middle like a leaking roof which restricts its ability to be great.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is not set in the untouched beauty surrounding the cities, no. Instead, the film is in a grey snowy town lousy with sludgy snow, ice and coal dust. Its only hope of colour is in the neon signs that advertise the businesses of the area. Stripped of style, stark visuals embellish the stagnation of its lead. Dull colours of slush town living seep out to accentuate dismal lives only made interesting by the case. There are some fantastic shots in this film – a POV shot that welcomes us to six years later, wide-shot shoot-out, its final group of shots – but some terrible cutting ruins several fantastic ones, including that wide-shot. The rough cut to a random scream is vulgar, unnecessary and hideous.
A murder mystery that sees body parts show up in several different coal factories around China, hundreds of miles apart, makes each clue a fascinating discovery. The problem is, there are not enough clues or moments of fascination. Sometimes it lingers on the characters who are interesting, but it chooses the wrong moments to extend frequently. Relationships are cold with no real investment in them yet they’re the most passionate this town could possibly allow. Zhang (Liao Fan) and Wu Zhizhen’s (Gwei Lun Mei) romance is barely hotter than the frost surrounding them, but somehow their ice-skating and encounters are enthralling to watch.
What is problematic about Black Coal, Thin Ice is the ability to capitalise on all that it offers. The direction needed more discipline as well as more insight into other areas surrounding, just something decorative or characterful to bring it up to par. Although asking for more may be exactly what the film wants with its starkness, indifference and general malaise being the key ingredients. The problem is that there is not enough to keep it meaty enough to chew, its bare bones as clear as a skeleton in the second act that sorts of drifts without direction.
Diao Yi’nan has a lot of talent, that’s why this won the Golden Bear at Berlin in a competitive year, but sadly there is still something missing from it to elevate it to its greatness. Stark direction, depressing colour palette and flashes of spectacular moments lull you into its miserable world, but it lets go halfway through. Thankfully, it pulls you back in with the revelations which are both surprising and refreshing. Black Coal, Thin Ice manages to be a slow-burn noir that has its tension unfortunately freeze until it thaws out with amplified heat in the third act. The beautiful imagery that it does manage will stay with audiences for a while – especially that gorgeous ending.
Words: Ashley Norris