The spirits of Raymond Chandler and James M Cain course through Black Coal, Thin Ice, a bleak but powerful detective thriller in which – as with all the best noirs – there are no real heroes or villains.
The setting is a northern Chinese factory district, circa 1999, where a set of dismembered human remains turns up. The dead man is husband to a laundry worker, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei). Enter detective Zhang (Liao Fan), who quickly identifies a suspect. But what should be a routine arrest goes awry, turning into one of the more imaginatively staged shootouts in recent movies.
We jump forward five years to find Zhang drunk and dissolute. In a chance encounter he learns that two factory workers have turned up dead in eerily similar fashion. Zhang decides to begin his own investigation, starting with the widow Wu… Though less overtly political than Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Black Coal, Thin Ice does proffer a similarly dark portrait of a China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources.
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