Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 09, 2015 4:27 pm 
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Dodgy, dingily gorgeous Chinese neo-noir delights the eye and numbs the mind

If you love the genre and appreciate original filmmaking it'll be hard not to be seduced by Diao's stylish, moody neo-noir -- Black Coal, Thin Ice in the English title; the equivalent of Daylight Fireworks in the Chinese one. It's nice that the Berlinale rewarded it with the Golden Bear: noir doesn't always get a seat in first class. But this isn't going to mean the film will have an audience beyond festivals and genre fans, at least outside China. Bear in mind that it's a Chinese neo-noir, which specifically means the set designer and cinematographer have collaborated using locations evoking China circa 1999 and 2004, hence at earlier stages of the country's production explosion, to provide a series of deliciously shabby-chic, about-to-be-remodeled-or-demolished locations, so gorgeous one Letterbox reviewer had to keep rewinding to admire them. There are also references to rampant Chinese government corruption and indifference to the value of human life. But while there is interesting complexity in the main characters as well as subtle beauty in the visuals, the action is somewhat stagnant and muddled.

With a sense of tactile sensuality, Diao delivers a hot and sweaty summertime green-and-black opening section to make us more keenly aware, as if plunged into an ice-water bath, of the much longer, snowy, wintry, blue-gray last part, which makes great use of ice and snow and chilly winds that almost sweep people away. Locations and visuals set throughout in Manchuria (Northeastern China) indeed are a triumph of atmosphere and aesthetic gratification in Diao's movie.

Note that the Letterbox online reviewer wasn't going back over scenes to try to figure out the plot, because one never really can. Yet at the same time one kind of knows what's going on. The reject police detective, Zhang (Liao Fan), fired or resigned after a terribly botched arrest five years earlier, is half in love with what you don't have to be a genius to know is the chief suspect in this ongoing serial killer case, laundry employee Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei). A familiar trope: see Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin in Sea of Love (1989), or a couple of years ago Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling in I, Anna, to name only two. Noir detectives just tend to fall for suspicious people (ladies), much as friend Joseph Cotton didn't want to suspect his old pal Orson Welles of unspeakable wartime evil in The Third Man. A tense late scene in Black Coal set high up in on a ferris wheel seems to allude to the Carol Reed Classic, and Diao refers to Jules et Jim too. He's a little drunk on his forebears.

The action plunges quickly into contemporary gruesomeness when odd, long packages start to appear in shipments of coal all over the country. They turn out to contain body parts -- there's a severed hand and wrist showing atop one freight load -- evidently dropped onto open train cars that were sent from a central location. Zhang is involved in an arrest of two armed punks in a seedy hair salon reminiscent of early Wong Kar Wai. Incredibly, in a flash two cops are killed, and one punk gets away. Next thing you know it's five years later and Zhang is slumped over, very drunk, by his motorcycle in an underpass. He wakes up just enough to see his motorcycle swapped for a cheap Chinese Mobylette. He's a security guard lately, and so often drunk his boss is ready to fire him. Somehow he's around when another serial killing with the same elongated body part packages turns up. Zhang starts following Wu, widow of the 1999 coal plant victim. He's so clumsy she spots him and tells him to stop, and they become a sort of couple.

As Zhang, Lio Fan is a mixture of loser and hero like many noir protagonists. He gets dumped by his wife at the beginning after an oddball, sexy, upside down lovemaking scene, in those hot and steamy 1999 days when he was leaner and cleaner and younger-looking. In his 2004 state of decline, he sports a droopy, semi-comical, semi-handsome Fu Manchu mustache. Older looking, perhaps chubbier, he is perpetually wearing a heavy leather jacket and a big scarf. He has them on even in a late scene when he does a wild interpretive dance, a vague allusion to Denis' Beau Travail, in one of the best of many pleasingly trashy locations, a big, splendidly decayed dance hall.

As Wu Zhizhen, the object of Zhang's attractions-suspicions, Gwei Lun Mei is similarly ambiguous, more drab and dull-eyed than a femme fatale ought to be at first, but more handsome-looking and seductively mysterious as time goes on. She definitely qualifies as a vagina dentata type, a la Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl's Last Seduction, and one feels Zhang's borderline self-defeating fascination.

Noir plots can be pretty simple, like those of Dahl's debut trifecta of rigorously genre zingers Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction. Or they can be famously incomprehensible, like The Big Sleep's, which the filmmakers themselves said they were baffled by. In very rare and wonderful cases, as in perhaps the greatest neo-noir of all, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, they can have plots that are both complex and layered, and yet ultimately make perfect sense. That took a lot of thought and revision and a brilliant screenwriter like Robert Towne to carry off. Some French noirs also are puzzlers, like Melville's Le Doulos. Which brings us to the point that in noir, mood and style and atmosphere are so important they can make up for a plot's inadequacies, almost. Diao does some wonderful things with transitions and surprises. The flashy, yet realistic, finale to which the Chinese title refers comes out of left field, but it's a surprise that's drenched in possible irony rich in political and social implications, which may help explain how this is compared with the abrupt shifts of Jia's A Touch of Sin.

The trouble with Diao's movie is that it goes by fits and starts, and gets pretty sluggish at times, Zhang's ambivalence coming across just as inertia. The ending of the film is a dazzler, but can't hide the fact that Diao has just dropped and moved on from the plot rather than resolved it. But that is not to say this is a slog like something by Béla Tarr or Nuri Bilge Ceylon. It just doesn't zip along, or deliver a fully satisfying narrative.

Black Coal, Thin Ice/白日焰火 ("Daylight Fireworks"), Diao Yinan's third feature, 106 mins., in Mandarin, debuted 17 Feb. 2014 at Berlin, winning the top prize. Several dozen other international festivals and several dozen country theatrical releases, including France 11 Jun. 2014. French reviews were excellent: AlloCiné press rating 4.0 ("Ça, c'est du cinéma" - Le Nouvel Observateur). Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival, 23 Apr.-7 May, showing in Berkeley 25 April (Pacific Film Archive), and twice in San Francisco, 27 April (Landmark Clay), and 29 April (Sundance Kabuki).


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