Something unusual happened last February at the Berlin International Film Festival. Many films were vying for the festival’s top prize, including Richard Linklater’s 12-year coming of age story Boyhood and Life of Riley, the final film by the late, great Alain Resnais, among others. The festival jury, however, gave the Golden Bear to an unexpected winner—Diao Yinan’s noir-y Black Coal, Thin Ice. Only the third film by Diao, Black Coal was the closing film of the festival and its bleak images of northern China left a strong impression on the jury, beating out the many higher-profile films it was up against. Unexpected though it may be, Black Coal fully matches up to its competition, and absolutely deserves the win.
Black Coal begins in a town in northern China in 1999, as the police are discovering a grisly murder—a man has been dismembered, and his body parts are showing up in coal trains all over the region. Officer Zhang (Liao Fan) is put on the case, and with a little help from the deceased’s significant other (Gwei Lun-mei) quickly ends up on the trail of a potential suspect. As he and his team of investigators move in to arrest their quarry, things quickly turn violent, ending with the suspect and multiple cops dead, and Zhang hospitalized.
Five years later, Zhang is back on the force, but he’s become a hopeless alcoholic, still wracked by his traumatic experience. However, soon enough Wang (Yu Ailei), the only other survivor from five years ago, approaches Zhang with news of new cases that match the profile of the coal plant murders, all with one thing in common: all the victims were involved with the same woman. From there, the plot twists and turns almost to the point of incomprehensibility—as all great film noir ought to.
Liao Fan, who packed on over forty pounds for his role and won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at Berlin, is wonderful in Black Coal. Though he’s had a respectable career in China, especially on television, Liao hasn’t had much of a chance to lead a major film until now, certainly not one with the level of international recognition of Black Coal. As Zhang, however, he gives a performance that could potentially rocket him into international prominence. He always maintains a sense of a self-conscious (and sometimes futile) Bogart-esque cool, whether he’s involved in an intense interrogation or even, in one strange scene, channeling a drunken Denis Lavant in Beau Travail, bumblingly dancing to 70s Mandopop. Liao’s performance, mixing a great deal of restraint with occasional façade-breaking moments of awkwardness, does a great deal to hold the film up, giving the audience something to latch onto in the often rapidly spiraling narrative.
While Black Coal can comfortably be described as film noir, what sets it apart is the ways in which it averts certain noirisms to great effect. Yes, it has the loopy, hard-to-follow plot, many of the proper character archetypes are in fine form, and tonally the film seems to have burst from a Chinese copy of a Chandler novel, and yes all this on its own would make Black Coal admirable as a top-notch latter-day noir. However, the film also boldly makes great use of bright colors—many of its most memorable images feature imposing neon lights set against the otherwise gray and snowy backdrop of a Chinese coal belt town. Perhaps even more radically, Diao finds a lot of room for humor in his otherwise stone-faced drama, be it a sly visual joke, an absurd situation, or even, most daringly, a few instances of slapstick, though it never once feels out of place. As much as it fits the bill in other ways, it seems almost contradictory to call Black Coal, Thin Ice “film noir´—it’s just a little bit too light to match the title.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is perhaps one of the more surprising films to come out this year, filled as it is with idiosyncrasies, but also one of the most refreshing. Few films with such a dense, grim plot could manage to feel so breezy and assured, yet Black Coal is endlessly watchable. We can surely expect great things from Diao Yinan in the future, and hopefully his films will find a wider release internationally so that a larger audience can come to appreciate his slightly off-kilter style.