Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal, Thin Ice is a detective story about a recurring crime in the industrial north of China and Zhang, the unorthodox detective, investigating it. In 1999 body parts turn up in coal at a number of factories in different towns. The police track the coal to a mine and decide that the body parts were most likely put on trucks at the weigh station. This is backed up by the disappearance of one of the weigh station staff. The arrest is bungled and an attractive young widow buries her husband's ashes. The film jumps to 2004 and we catch up with Zhang now working as a heavy drinking security guard at risk of losing this job. One day he bumps into his old boss on a stake out of same widow and Zhang decides to start investigating (stalking?) her in his free time. More body parts start turn up.

Zhang belongs to the serendipity school of detective work. One where you work on hunches, go to places previously associated with the suspect on the off chance and follow tangential leads etc. He also works alone which makes this a difficult story to follow. The standard approach to detective stories (used most notably by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is to have either an offsider or have a pair of detectives. This device allows the main detective to explain his train of thought to the other character (and to us). Even though the pace of this movie is not fast, there are a lot of clues and I feel I need to re-see it to try and get facts straight in my head.

Neither Zhang nor Wu Zhizhen (the widow) are sympathetic characters, and the grimy, winter industrial setting and the dominance of night scenes gives this a film noir feel. In fact the director seems more interested in noir style than plain story telling, and viewers are likely to come to different conclusions about the events. This is not a picture post card China, nor a slick wire fu China. This is a China of factories, mum-and-pop dry cleaners, over crowded buses and tired dance halls. A China of robberies, murder and infidelity. A China of snow and coal.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is a surprise from China. A noir film populated by ordinary people.

Ian's rating 3/5 Anne's rating 2.5/5

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