March 9, 2018
Black Coal, Thin Ice – China, 2014
For the longest time, I have been in the habit of buying films I have never seen. More often than not, this yields pleasant surprises. I fondly remember Damien O’Donnell’s East is East and Roberto Benigni’s The Monster, both of which I had purchased after reading brief descriptions of them during my research into upcoming DVD releases. To me, their excellence confirmed the wisdom of my rather expensive habit. Alas, purchases like Yinan Diao’s 2014 film, Black Coal, Thin Ice, do exactly the opposite.
The film’s central focus is a detective named Zili Zhang, played by Fan Liao. The beginning of the film finds him spending time with a young woman in a hotel. They silently play cards and then make love on top of the cards. Diao interrupts these moments by showing viewers the grisly discovery of human remains at a coal plant. We then see Zhang and the woman at a train station, where she hands him a certificate of divorce and tells him good-bye. And in just a few minutes, Diao has shown viewers the kind of break up that mostly exists in the mind of male songwriters. The difference here is that Zhang doesn’t feel as at peace with it as the pop stars do. What follows is a cautionary tale, one that could easily be entitled “The Problem with Investigating a Murder on a Broken Heart.”
Zhang is called in to investigate the murder. We know he has a stellar reputation for solving cases such as these because one of his fellow officers tells him a variation of the standard plea, “You are the only one who can crack the case.” The officer’s faith is misplaced, though, for Zhang’s work is sloppy, and his interpersonal skills are – to put it mildly – lacking. In a telling scene, both he and his partner tell the deceased’s widow (Lunmei Kwei) that she is wasting valuable time by crying so much. Nice. Of course, things go from bad to worse. The casualties: two possible criminals, two veteran police officers, and two previously outstanding careers. The film then jumps ahead five years, to a time when it appears the real killer has resumed his homicidal ways.
There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about such a set-up. In fact, anyone who has seen Basic Instinct or Al Pacino’s Sea of Love will recognize many of the film’s twists and turns coming a mile away. However, those films had something that kept them afloat, that made them more involving than Black Coal, Thin Ice: well-established characters. If asked to describe Zhang, I would be at a loss for words. “Silent” and “moody” come to mind, but these words are inadequate because they say nothing about what drives him or what he ultimately wants out of life or his chosen career. The same can be said of Lunmei Kwei’s character in the film. Kwei plays the mysterious widow, Zhizhen Wu, yet like Zhang, this character says little, and Diao seems to think that audiences will just instinctively know the sentiments and motivations behind each character’s laconic state.
The only character that breathes real life into the film is Zhang’s former partner. Played by Xuebing Wang, he is a decent man trying to do his best to make the world a better place. He is fair and gives Zhang respect at a time when others don’t, and if you suspect that this bodes ill for him, you’re correct. In this film, the good die early, the bad should be empathized with but aren’t, and the hero is a jerk. Cue the caustic voice inside me: “What’s not to like about that?” Turns out, plenty.
For a movie like Black Coal, Thin Ice to work, something important must be at stake. Lives should be in danger, and time ought to be of the essence. Here, time seems to be on everyone’s side. Five years goes by without a murder, and even when they rear their ugly head again, the possible explanation for them allows characters to take their sweet time. There’s time to trail someone, time to wait for your clothes to be dry cleaned, and time for two characters to… come to think of it, I’m not sure what they do. It certainly isn’t love. It’s more like a form of entrapment. He is setting a trap for the killer; she’s setting a trap for him. And what it all culminates in is at best passive physicality and at worst sexual assault – on the supposed hero’s side. It’s enough to make you long for someone to swoop in and save her from the oppression of men until you realize that someone did attempt to do just that, and he too was both guardian and tormentor.
As I’m writing this, I can’t shake the feeling of disappointment. This is a film that should have been better. It had a lot going for it in the beginning, including a rather thrilling and shocking gun fight, yet once it jumps ahead in time, it becomes a challenge to remain invested in it. In the end, I didn’t care that the detective had redeemed himself or that the mystery had been solved. I was simply glad it was over. Now, a film can be dark, characters can be morally repugnant, and not every movie has to end with two people walking hand in hand into a brighter future, yet all that Black Coal, Thin Ice offers viewers is bleakness. Well, that and long stretches of silence. Yet it doesn’t offer viewers what they may need most in a film of this sort: a reason to stay committed, a character to latch onto and pull for. Black Coal, Thin Ice lacks this, and to me, this is a major problem, one that the film simply never recovers from. (on DVD and Blu-ray)