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Black Coal, Thin Ice | Blu-ray Review

Black Coal, Thin IceChinese director Diao Yinan delivered his international breakout with third feature Black Coal, Thin Ice. Amassing a number of accolades during its festival circuit run, it was the prestigious winner of the Golden Bear at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival (beating titles like Linklater’s Boyhood, Resnais’ Life of Riley, and Yann Demange’s ’71). Unfortunately, such prestigious honors didn’t translate into a distribution deal since Yinan’s film never made it to a US theatrical release. Fans of hard boiled film noir, particularly of complex, labyrinthine and convoluted narrative structures should definitely enjoy Yinan’s supremely stylistic murder mystery.

In northern China 1999, the body parts of a man are discovered all over the province, including dumpsters and coal factories. Detective Zhang (Liao Fan) is consumed by his wife leaving him, which is where his focus seems to be when his investigative team thinks they’ve identified the men behind the murder. Their operation to arrest them in a hair salon goes haywire and two policemen end up dead. Zhang is disgraced and we catch up with him five years later in 2004, now a security guard with a considerable drinking problem. A chance encounter reunites him with an old colleague, Captain Wang (Yu Ailei), who had also been involved in the botched case in 1999. It looks like whoever the murderer is has struck again in the same fashion, and Wang is tailing laundromat worker Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), a woman linked to three possible murders. Zhang ingratiates himself into the case, hoping to discover the culprit whose escape severely altered his life.

Although not quite as complicated as something like Howard Hawks’ 1946 classic The Big Sleep, Yinan does concoct a narrative structure requiring close attention to detail, something inherently easier to follow on a rewatch. Even then, sequences are so eerie and apprehensive they return to the mind like fragments from a disjointed nightmare, such as a tense nighttime skating sequence where Zhang follows Wu Zhizhen off the rink and into the shadowy drifts of snow. We know he’s attracted to her, though how much of this is an act we’re uncertain. We also know men attracted to Wu Zhizhen have a tendency to end up dead. A continually shifting landscape of informational exchange slowly reveals a disjointed but eventually comprehensible portrait of Wu Zhizhen and the man whose body parts turned up all over the province back in 1999.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is utterly gorgeous to watch, with Yinan’s regular DoP Dong Jingsong fashioning the rural province into a peripherally lit neon underworld. Many of the film’s notable exchanges of information transpire in claustrophobic spaces, like the laundromat, the backseats of cars, or even in a Ferris wheel carriage. A perpetually teary Gwen Lun Mei reveals key information, but it’s hard not to be constantly paralyzed or distracted by transformations of light or bits of background noise hinting at the constantly changing world around them, but the quartet of characters at hand have been stuck in a moment in time, all potentially due to an article of clothing.

Disc Review:

Well Go USA Entertainment presents the undistributed title as Not Rated in 16:9 widescreen, which seems well suited for Yinan’s title. No extra features are included, but the packaging and presentation are notable considering the lack of attention the title has received in the US.

Final Thoughts:

Bleak but superbly moody, Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice is an exciting homage to classic American film noir from a completely unexpected source, and much more intelligent than the simplicity of its title indicates.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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