Director: Diao Yi'nan
Writer: Diao Yi'nan
DP: Dong Jingsong
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Score: Wen Zi
Producer: Vivian Qu, Daniel J. Victor, Shen Yang
Starring: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing
Length: 1 hr. 49 min.
Black Coal, Thin Ice depicts a world out of joint in which neon lights cast sickly, artificial colors over everything in a desperate attempt to mask the chaos. It's a genre movie to its core, the plot composed almost entirely of elements from the films noir of the 1940s, but any lack of narrative originality is more than compensated for by how beautifully unsettling it is as an aesthetic experience.
The film begins in 1999, with a police investigation. Dismembered body parts have been found in coal shipments scattered all over the province. The film's opening switches between images of a severed arm and a yet-unidentified man; we wonder if he might be the murderer, or even the victim. We soon realize he's actually Detective Zhang, an cop assigned to the investigation. Based on clothes found at the scene, the police find that the victim was a man named Liang Zhijun. Zhang goes to speak with Liang's wife, Wu Zhizhen, who works at a laundromat, but she is unhelpful. Eventually he gets a lead, but in his attempt to follow up on it, both the suspects and his partners are killed.
The brief shootout scene in which Zhang's partners and suspects are killed is gruesome, but the viewer is kept at a distance. We see everything unfold, and notice that there are several places where it could have been prevented; unfortunately, the police were too sloppy and unprepared. It was a total slip-up, where the supposed enforcers of the law proved unable to provide the protection they promised. Imagery of people slipping and barely keeping their balance on icy roads, wet floors, or frozen lakes is seen throughout the film. It evokes the unseen dangers of the film's world, dangers that only remain unseen because the support structures holding them back haven't collapsed yet - and they could at any time.
After the deaths of Zhang's partners, there is a time lapse to 2004. The time lapse is visualized by a car entering a tunnel, then the camera showing the perspective of the car as it exits the other end. However, after it exits, the sound of the car disappears, and the camera turns back around; the take is unbroken, but no longer from the car's perspective. A title card informs us of the year, and the camera turns to a retired Zhang passed out drunk on the side of the road. Here, the illusion of stability disintegrates once again to reveal a sad truth: Zhang has become a pathetic layabout after the events of 1999.
Zhang once again becomes involved with an investigation, unofficially, when he meets an old friend from the police force. Zhang's friend welcomes his assistance because the case he's working on is so similar to the one from 2004, with body parts appearing in coal shipments all over the map. The case leads Zhang back to Wu Zhizhen and the laundromat where she works, and he ends up caught between falling in love with her and trying to uncover her secrets.
The constant returns to Wu Zhizhen's laundromat, among other things, establish clothing as a major motif. Clothing serves the same purpose as the lighting: to hide chaos under an outward appearance. It's a device by which many characters are deceived, but eventually it too collapses, and the truth has to come out - no matter how much everyone would rather not see it.
None of the points made through the motifs and gestures in Black Coal, Thin Ice are particularly complicated - or new, for that matter - but they're expressed in as striking a way as they could be. It's visceral before it's thought-provoking, and it all serves the end of making the final sequence as discomfiting as possible.
The Chinese title of Black Coal, Thin Ice translates to Daylight Fireworks, referring to a key image of the film's ending. By the end of the film, all barriers to the truth have collapsed, and the gaudy colors from earlier in the film are gone. But it doesn't feel as if the state of the film's world has improved. In daylight, fireworks are invisible; you can hear them, but you only see gray puffs of smoke. You expect to see color, but there is none, and it simply looks wrong. The image of daylight fireworks heightens the uncanny imbalance in the final scene; there are no more deceptive colors, but colorlessness is no better.
The film ends abruptly, and with a mystery. It introduces a new form of discomfort, hints at a cause from beyond the film's world, then leaves the audience asking "now what?" Black Coal, Thin Ice is not challenging for its violence, or because it cogently makes a novel point, but for how directly it jabs at the viewer's paranoia by portraying the world through a suspicious lens.