Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

Review #1,165

Director:  Diao Yi'nan
Cast:  Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing
Plot:  An ex cop and his ex partner decide to follow up on investigation of a series of murders that ended their careers and shamed them, when identical murders begin again.

Genre:  Crime / Drama / Mystery
Awards:  Won Golden Bear and Best Actor (Berlin).
Runtime:  106min
Rating:  NC16 for some coarse language and sexual scene.
International Sales:  Fortissimo Films

Well deserved of its Golden Berlin Bear award, Diao Yi'nan's (Uniform, 2003; Night Train, 2007) third feature is a superbly crafted crime mystery, so skillfully written in its misdirection that if you miss a small part, you might pay the price. 

Heavily influenced by noir, this rather gritty investigative procedural centers on a scruffy detective named Zhang, who is intrigued by a body parts murder that echoes a similar case in the same town years ago, one that he was in charge but was left disgraced (and discharged) after a police mishandling. 

Played by Liao Fan, who won Best Actor at Berlin, Zhang seeks for redemption in an unforgiving environment.  A mysterious woman (Gwei Lun Mei), who works in a small tailor shop, is seemingly at the heart of both murder cases.

Director Diao's mastery of location shooting is in full display here, with the excellent cinematography framing the characters against the dark of night, the cold of snow, and the coarse terrain of his suburban town.  This is one of the rare contemporary suspense mysteries that uses location vividly - natural ice-skating rink, town square, coal mine, tailor shop etc. to deepen the tension and uncertainty. 

One would point to an astonishing scene of violence in a hairdressing shop early on in the film as one of the film's highlights, but the highlight for me involves a creaking Ferris wheel, played to great suspenseful effect in more ways than one. 

Diao's film also contains one of the most outrageous epilogues in recent cinema, a direct reference to the film's Chinese title, translated as "fireworks in the day" - you have to see this sequence to believe it.  It makes no sense, but makes so much sense at the same time.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is haunting, even creepy, as you try to piece the puzzle together.  Its main narrative is rooted in the investigation of a homicide, but it offers us so much more - it becomes a locational commentary on the socio-economic conditions that foreground the existence of violent crime, as well as the flawed institutional structures that guide justice. 

You get the sense that even if a crime is solved in this town, it is never solved.  It is this constant unease that lingers on, even after the movie has closed.

Verdict:  This Golden Berlin Bear winner is a superbly crafted crime mystery with the requisite suspense, unease and grit that will leave you haunted.   


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