An invigorating, poetic, and discretely brilliant Chinese noir that adds up to less than the sum of its parts, Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake” can’t help but feel like a mild comedown from the director’s Berlinale-winning 2014, “Black Coal, Thin Ice.” To some degree, that disappointment may have been inevitable, as Yinan’s five-year-old masterpiece tapped into the kind of dark magic that’s difficult to conjure twice. Alas, it doesn’t necessarily help that Diao’s first feature in five years treads similar territory as his previous work, as he once again steers his bleak genius towards the bitter indignities of China’s “second-tier” cities, weaving a sibylline crime story of life and death through a world that’s moving too fast to keep tabs on such things.
Both “The Wild Goose Lake” and “Black Coal, Thin Ice” are splattered with utterly indelible moments of violence and thwarted grace, but where the latter film was enigmatic and haunting, this one travels a more convoluted and frustrating road towards its eventual moment of transcendence. It’s a minor work that nevertheless manages to certify the arrival of a major filmmaker.
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A native of Xi’an province who went on to become a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, Diao has canvassed much of his enormous home country over the last 48 years, and all of his films are rooted in a vivid — and often unforgiving — sense of place. The new one is no exception, as its locations drive the story from the opening scene. A cheeky translation of a Chinese title that literally means “A Rendezvous at a Station in the South,” “The Wild Goose Lake” begins on a wet night outside a dilapidated train station on the outskirts of Wuhan, where the rain pelts down hard enough to feel like an homage to Tsai Ming-liang.
The story will eventually grow too complicated for its own good, but for now it couldn’t be simpler: A handsome man with a bloody cut on his face is staring out into the darkness; a beautiful woman with a pixie haircut and a withholding smile offers him a light. He is Zhou Zenong (television star Hu Ge), a stoic mob boss who’s on the run from the cops and the Jiang Hu alike. She is Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei, the mousily dangerous femme fatale from “Black Coal, Thin Ice”), and her situation is a bit harder to explain. Let’s just say that she’s taking a quick break from her work as a “bathing beauty” (a sex worker who swims with her clients and conducts her business with them in the water), and has been hired to bring Zhou where he needs to go. “Should I trust you?,” he asks his mysterious new friend?” It’s a question that hovers over the rest of the film like a shadow, blanketing even the handful of daytime scenes in an ominous pall.
Jumping two days back in time, the first of several long flashbacks lays out how these two people came to find each other in front of a bright neon sign in the middle of nowhere. The long and short of it is that Zhou is caught up in a little tiff with his fellow gang members — an amusing presentation on how to steal a motorbike devolves into the kind of chaotic brawl that’s fast becoming one of Diao’s many signatures — and is then forced to compete with another crime family in “the Olympic Games of thievery” in order to settle the score. The torrent of grand theft auto that follows is rich enough to sustain an entire movie of its own; flecked by staccato moments of red lights carving through a starless night, and eventually punctuated by a sudden decapitation, this sequence is enough to make it clear that Diao could out-Refn the Neon Demon himself any day of the week.
But “The Wild Goose Lake” has bigger fish to fry, as Zhou accidentally kills a policeman, and escapes into an uncharted corner of the map with a ¥300,000 (~$40,000) bounty on his head. Liu is dispatched by her pimp to collect Zhou’s long-estranged wife and use her as bait, but the fugitive hopes to orchestrate things so that his partner collects the reward money in order to care for herself and their young son. It goes without saying that nothing happens according to plan, especially not once police Captain Liu (“Black Coal, Thin Ice” star Liao Fan) and his delinquent officers get involved in the case.
The cops never manage to pull their narrative weight, even though Diao has some fun rhyming the shared behavior between the police and their prey. Liao is a gifted actor, but his character is hardly afforded 10 lines of dialogue, and the movie around him is too plot-heavy to express Captain Liu’s full poetic value. That’s true of the entire supporting cast, as everyone aside from the two leads is reduced to a glorified prop — an empty vessel desperately trying to poke some holes into the vast purgatory around them.
For the most part, that’s all Diao needs them to be, as the director is able to say more with bodies in motion than most filmmakers are with pages full of dialogue. Look no further than the hypnotic setpiece in which a public nighttime dance — in which everyone wears light-up shoes, and moves to all the same steps — dissolves into a frantic shootout. Or the hyper-elliptical chase that cuts between a single wide shot and a series of extreme close-ups of animal eyes and iron bars to suggest a police sting at a zoo. The climactic firefight, which kicks off with the year’s most inspired movie kill, finds the characters racing around the inside of an open-plan apartment complex, running in circles (or squares) after each other as the rest of the world shrugs the whole thing off.
A master of cinematic suggestion and a painter of unscreen space, Diao sometimes only needs one perfect shot to express how Zhou and Liu have become detached from the dignity they’re each hoping to reclaim. The primary conflict in “The Wild Goose Lake” is that between people and their own silhouettes. Liu is first seen through an umbrella that separates her from her shadow, as if she’s been peeled away from her true self, and that motif recurs every time she has a chance of getting away with the money. Her not-quite-romance with Zhou roots its power in their mutual lack of betrayal — the bond is tellingly, if not erotically galvanized on a dingy as it drifts alone on the water — but the character is best defined by a stunning image of Gwei strolling along the beach with her work outfit on (a sunhat that provides several different kinds of shade), and walking by a mural that depicts a future development that taunts her like a fantasy.
It’s never made clear why “The Wild Goose Lake” is set in 2012, but maybe Diao is just buying himself a few years; in a country that’s constantly shedding its skin, even the most current movies can feel like period pieces by the time they hit screens. Liu is a product of that mutability, and perhaps able to use it for her own benefit. As usual in Diao’s films, the women are endowed with a secret (and often dangerous) power, and the men are blindsided by their inability to see that.
Here, however, these ideas fray apart whenever the film tugs at them. The musicality of Diao’s cinema has never been more symphonic, but it comes at the expense of his ability to properly conduct this script. “The Wild Goose Lake” broadens out every time you want it to contract and refocus, and by the time its heroes redouble their efforts to buy their way free of their bitter fortunes, we’ve lost track of the price they have to pay for it. Whatever the cost, Diao’s latest film doesn’t quite reward the investment required to see it through. Money is everything in a country that’s never had more of it, but trust is still the most valuable commodity. “I’m alone,” Liu tells Zhou when they first meet. “I was waiting for you.” Maybe it’s just a line, but “The Wild Goose Lake” would have been richer — or at least more romantic — if it had taken her at her word.
“The Wild Goose Lake” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.