Black Coal, Thin Ice
It must be tempting to become lost in style and cliché when creating something in the film noir mould. It is a genre that practically demands ominously seedy street lighting and cigarette smoke, as much as it does the burnout detective to walk cynically through it. Black Coal, Thin Ice is, at least on the face of it, no exception to this rule. But beyond the deliberately banal title and the fairly standard plotline, there is far more going on here than just another homage to Humphrey Bogart or Orson Welles.
The plot centres on Zhang Zili (Liao Fan), a divorced, alcoholic former detective and his attempts to find redemption by solving the case that ultimately led to his dismissal. Back in 1999, his investigation into the discovery of body parts in coal yards across the province had proved fatal for several fellow officers along with both suspects. Zhang survived the incident but lost everything else in the process. Five years of drinking and introspective misery later, and he’s a broken man barely keeping hold of his job as a security guard. That is until an old friend comes to him with news. The killer, it seems, is back. Reinvigorated and swapping the bottle for the more nourishing option of dumplings, Zhang’s fumbling investigation leads him, in true noir fashion, to the mysterious femme fatale, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), who has a connection to the victims and whose charms are, of course, not lost on the former detective.
This is where noir-by-numbers ends. Beautifully shot in a wintry and heavily industrialised part of northern China, Yi’nan Diao’s award winning film has a quirky, small-town feel to it that leans more towards the Coen brothers and Takeshi Kitano than it does to Welles. The minimalist portrayal of both violence and emotion provides an off-beat charm that manages to blend in dark comedy and absurdity without detracting from the overall bleakness of the atmosphere. And it is delightfully bleak. There’s a purposeful grimness hanging over every moment of character action, whether that’s ice-skating, sex, or even pulling disembodied arms out from under heaps of coal. Rather than the sort of plot twists and intrigue typical to noir, it is the skill used to create the slow-moving atmosphere of tragedy and fatalistic comedy, buoyed by some solid performances, that makes Black Coal, Thin Ice as enjoyable as it is. A worthy addition to the genre, even if it is lacking an inner monologue.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is available to buy on DVD from Hong Kong distributors.
Watch the trailer for Black Coal, Thin Ice here: