One of the major narratives coming into the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, which ends this weekend, was the inclusion of three Chinese films in the main competition. And each of those films in turn seemed to represent an aspect of a national cinema that is still, to those of us in the West, often something of a mystery: “Blind Massage” comes from director Lou Ye, who has had a checkered history with the Chinese censors, having been banned from filmmaking several times over due to what they deem controversial depictions of gender and sexuality; “No Man’s Land” is a straight-up state-funded genre Western from Ning Hao; and “Black Coal, Thin Ice” lies somewhere in the middle on the political and aesthetic spectrum, blending elements of genre and elements of social realist commentary in a manner perhaps closest in spirit to Jia Zhangke’s Cannes entry “A Touch of Sin." On a purely visceral level, ‘Black Coal’ achieves that synthesis rather better, but the odd rhythm of very fast and slick followed by very slow and arty is difficult to settle into, and the film ultimately frustrates, willfully obscuring the apparatus of what appears at first to be a promising film noir framework.
The story, told obliquely and without any hand-holding as it leaps around in time, follows Zhang Zili (Liao Fan), a police captain at the outset who, investigating a case involving scattered body parts turning up in coal plants, is wounded during a lurid shoot-out in a hairdressers, a botched operation that claims the lives of two of his colleagues as well as Zhang’s badge. Five years later, he is now a security guard but when body parts start popping up again Zhang teams unofficially with his old partner to try and bring the killer to justice, and in so doing, to lay to rest some of the demons that haunt him. This time, the investigation keeps bringing him to a certain laundry, and the beautiful woman who works there—with whom he soon starts to fall in a gloomy kind of love, despite her femme-fatale style moral ambivalence and her shady connections to the deaths.
As film noir goes, it’s a pretty straightforward plot, but that takes some deciphering as director Diao Yinan alternates plot-filled genre set pieces, such as the hairdresser shootout, which is staged in a kind of loopy, Tarantino-inflected way, with long somber stretches where very little happens and a lot of slightly misplaced-feeling attention is given to a shot of someone walking away, or of a motorcycle pulling a U-turn on a snowy highway. So while the tonal shifts do initially create a sense of unpredictability and intrigue, and Diao skillfully achieves some very atmospheric, foreboding photography, a lot of the time we’re scrambling to make connections that may not even exist, and with so many of those moments turning out to be red herrings, you eventually lose the will to continue trying. This distancing was not helped by the surprisingly dour, unsparky romance that happens between Zhang and the laundress Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei) whose solemn aura may be supposed to evoke a kind of Stanwyckian mysteriousness, but just feels zoned-out.
As for social commentary, the film is less overt about it than the aforementioned Jia Zhangke movie, but, through the more spartan stretches, a sense does emerge of an alienated population, regarding life as cheap to the point of expendable, and oppressed by their surroundings, whether the joyless laundry, the wide expanses of an outdoor nighttime ice rink or the featureless courtyard where the climax occurs against a backdrop of unexplained and unexpected fireworks. Touches of absurdity, like those fireworks, are very welcome, but come few and far between in a film more geared towards operating in a lower register, and draining the frame of life and incident rather than adding it in.
The real fragility of the film, however, is in the viewer’s connection to its characters. The events the film portrays create seismic shifts in their circumstances and personalities and our relationship to them should be colored with that peculiar mix of guilt, regret, blame, and the slim hope, offered to all film noir heroes, of redemption or at least the avoidance of all-out damnation. But we’re never that attached to them–there’s an unknowability to the principals that reinforces the sense of loneliness and alienation that the film achieves so well, but it is achieved at the expense of us caring whether any of them live or die on anything other than the level of detached intellectual curiosity.
Promising, and potentially provocative on the both the level of its genre aspirations and its arthouse credibility, "Black Coal, Thin Ice" is more likely to appeal to rarefied cinephile audiences than the larger numbers it clearly hoped to attract —the press screening was one of the best attended, with advance word being strong on the possibility of the film becoming that whitest of whales: a crossover Chinese-language international hit. But if it is not accessible enough for that to be a likely outcome, it is still an unusual melding of elements both familiar and strange into something that eschews the linearity of genre for a more mosaic-like structure, and emerges the more confounding, but the more distinctive for it. [C+/B-]