As a rule of thumb, a severed hand discovered in a pile of coal is not a good sign. Neither is the emergence of the remaining body parts spread across China. Thus Black Coal, Thin Ice, winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival opens. What follows is an absorbingly gritty crime drama that mines humour, violence and mystery before unexpectedly collapsing in the final third.
Director/writer Diao Yinan starts with the hand and the subsequent police investigation conducted by Zhang (Liao Fan) and Wang (Yu Ailei). When that goes down a number of dead ends that eventually leads to Zhang taking a bullet, the story jumps forward from 1999 to 2004 where Zhang now works in a factory permanently drunk. When a similar crime occurs, he’s brought in by his old partner and soon finds himself fascinated by mysterious laundrette worker Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei) who has a close connection to each corpse.
Yinan operates with a combination of bleak social realism and film noir. Snow covers the landscape leaving everyone permanently swaddled in layers of clothing. Breath visibly forms and footsteps crunch through dispersed powder. Much of the action takes place at night on darkened streets or in glaringly lit establishments. With the contrast between dark and light all around, Yinan also brings in moments of precision comedy to alleviate a mood that threatens to overwhelm.
As the film progresses, the relationship that forms between Zhang and Wu grows in importance. They skirt each other for a long time unwilling to divulge secrets. There’s an attraction formed squarely from suspicion, a desire to save each other battling with a desire to save themselves. Fan makes for an accomplished lead, confident when he needs to be, bumbling the rest of the time. Opposite him, Lun-Mei never loses her air of mystery.
Mystery is a strong point in the film. At least for the first two thirds. The convoluted story holds up well as Yinan walks us down a number of paths before a glimmer of truth becomes apparent. Then everyone seems to give up. After working so hard to establish a convincing set up, it’s thrown out the window in an extended conclusion that undermines the mystery before tearing it down completely. It’s a bitterly disappointing end to what was shaping up to be a highly effective crime drama.
For two thirds of its running time, Black Coal, Thin Ice is an engrossingly layered experience. Then it all falls apart, leaving a number of unanswered questions. The silence in reply is deafening.