This Chinese police procedural thriller echoes the 1999 South Korean outing Tell Me Something. Whereas both told of a burnout detective hunting the killer responsible for dismembering his victims and placing them in various parts of the city, Yang Yoon-hyun’s visuals of grimy, neon-lit Seoul streets trumps Yi’nan Diao’s stripped down, more realistic affair.
This is disappointing as Black Coal, Thin Ice promised to be visually arresting in its opening salvo: the white hand sticking out of the black coal that trundles along the conveyor belt; the clever perspective switch in a tunnel that takes the story from 1999 to 2004; the night chase across the ice. This kind of inventiveness dissipates as the film progresses as if Yi’nan Diao loses interest in it all. And the reason behind the crime is a big let-down once revealed.
When a dismembered body is discovered at a coal factory in freezing northern China, a young detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is charged with solving the case. However, he botches the investigation and he and his partner are forced to retire. Fast forward to five years later and another dismembered body turns up in a coal factory. The disgraced and now-alcoholic Zhang conducts his own investigation and finds the new victim has a loose connection to the wife (Lun Mei Gwei) of the original victim. Zhang probes further but begins to have feelings for the enigmatic woman...
Black Coal, Thin Ice beat Boyhood to the big prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and whatever misgivings one might have had with Linklater’s film – it’s nothing more than a gimmick, the kid can’t act, what was the point? etc – there was a panache in that teen drama that’s absent in this Chinese thriller. Seemingly aware of its own dourness, there are attempts to inject moments of humour but these scenes don’t fit with in the overall tone: moments like when a policeman lunges Three Stooges style at a perp off camera, and the kooky dry cleaner with the bad hairpiece. But the strange decisions don’t stop there: with everything low key, the reveal of the killer is downplayed to nothing more than a shrug.
An engaging performance from Liao Fan, who put on weight for the 2004 section, can’t help the feeling of disengagement from the goings on.