Black Coal, Thin Ice
Bai ri yan huo
Diao Yinan - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD
With a bad cold, trying to watch Black Coal, Thin Ice on the big screen at the Udine Far East Film Festival was less than ideal. While the momentum of the win at Berlin in January of last year has dissipated, the film can now be more widely seen with the home video version.
Diao's film has been described as film noir. As overused as that genre appellation may be, it is fitting here, with it's drunken ex-cop doggedly trying to solve a case, five years after a botched arrest, and his pursuit of the woman who is the possible link to several murders. The story takes place first in 1999, and primarily in 2004, in an unnamed city in northern China. Most of the action takes place during winter nights, where people meet in cheap restaurants, low rent dance halls, or little movie theaters on dark streets. As others have pointed out, the milieu here is not to different from that of the novels by James Cain's with their working class settings.
Wu Zhizhen may not be the most obvious femme fatale. Gwei Lun-mei is neither as exotic nor as glamorous as seen in several of her roles for Tsui Hark. Diao departs from convention as Wu is fairly ordinary in appearance. Lana Turner bared her midriff, while Barbara Stanwyck showed off her anklet. Gwei remains fully dressed, more so, in exterior scenes with a scarf around her face. For most of the film, Wu reveals little of herself, exposing only the smallest of parts that she chooses to be seen.
What is visible are the results of grisly murders, body parts that appear in the coal processed at different plants. Zhang, the cop on the case in 1999, now a security guard, has a chance meeting with his former partner, and discovers similar murders taking place five years later. He knows Wu is connected to the murders but he doesn't know how. As in classic noir, the two briefly become lovers, though everyone - the audience as well as the characters - knows nothing good will come of their liaison.
The Chinese title translates as "Daylight Fireworks", which becomes more significant as a clue later in the story. Diao has explained this original title as expressing the need for catharsis. Diao has also gone on record as having seen The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man and Touch of Evil while preparing his screenplay, an eight year effort. Unmentioned by Diao, but of possible influence would be two later films influenced by film noir, Band of Outsiders and Pulp Fiction. Zhang makes a return visit to the dance studio from an earlier scene. Given the chance to be appreciated, Liao Fan's wild, solo dance to contemporary Chinese pop music is as memorable as Anna Karina doing the Madison, or Travolta and Thurman twisting to Chuck Berry.