Screenwriter Yi`nan Diao is one of China’s rising stars. Over the last few years, he has brought a steady stream of internationally renowned pictures to our screens, including the critically acclaimed Night Train, and the multi-award-winning Uniform. His latest film, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a dark thriller that has garnered a great deal of festival buzz, having already won awards at the Abu Dhabi, Berlin and Golden Horse awards, as well as being nominated for countless other accolades. But does it live up to the hype?
Following a messy divorce, Detective Zhang Zili (a delightfully dour Fan Liao) is called in to investigate the sudden appearance of a series of dismembered body parts at disparate locations across the country. After the prime suspect is killed in a bungled shoot-out, the murders stop and Zhang and his partner are left in disgrace. Five years on, the murders begin again, leading Zhang on a trail towards the original suspect`s wife. In search of the mysterious killer, Zhang must struggle with loss, the prospect of his own death, and his growing feelings for the woman who could possibly be orchestrating the killings.
The story is strong, and filled with enough twists and turns to inspire a new Six Flags ride, but what Black Coal, Thin Ice is really lacking is pace. Tonally, it is intriguing, with some amazingly innovative camera work, but the narrative tends to meander, and some of the more tense moments are delivered in an utterly unengaging manner. When the film`s final reveal comes around, we as an audience have rather lost interest in the characters` motivations and intentions.
There is also some confusion as to the film’s style of delivery; the first act is darkly humourous and at times wonderfully over the top in its conveyance, whilst the rest of the second and third acts seem utterly bland in comparison before it’s bizarre firework display of an epilogue. Fan Liao`s protagonist does his best to drive the story (despite his strangely uncomfortable machismo), but is hindered somewhat by Lun Mei Gwei`s rather beige performance as possible murderess Wu Zhizhen.
Overall, what Black Coal, Thin Ice lacks in momentum, it makes up for in style. An intriguing if not fully realized plot, and some inventive cinematography, this is a decent entry into the growing oeuvre of an interesting new director. There are sparks of innovation to be found here, and I look forward to Diao mining these gems in his future works.
Dir: Yi`nan Diao
Scr: Yi`nan Diao
Starring: Fan Liao, Lun Mei Gwei, Xuebing Wang, Jingchun Wang, Ailei Yu
Prd: Vivian Qu
DOP: Jingsong Dong
Music: Zi Wen
Run time: 110mins
Black Coal, Thin Ice is available on DVD from 6th July 2015 via Studiocanal.