AFI Fest 2014: Black Coal, Thin Ice (★★)

AFI Fest Black Coal Thin Ice

Black Coal Thin Ice

In 1999’s Northern China, dismembered body parts show up in coal shipments around the province. The ensuing investigation leads to the deaths of several police officers and the resignation of lead investigator Zhang Zili. Five years later,  Zhang, now an alcoholic security officer, happens upon an old friend and fellow detective, and soon finds himself in the midst of an investigation related to the former case, and involving the previous victim’s widow.This Chinese thriller held a lot of promise, but in the end, it just didn’t deliver. What started as a gripping detective story soon devolved into a series of cliched scenes and sequences so random they never found a way to fit into a rational narrative.

Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (although the Chinese name translates to Daylight Fireworks) doesn’t seem to interest itself with being different or particularly innovative. The story is fine, although it’s reminiscent of other noir crime films that are much more satisfying. Every aspect of this film is familiar because it has all been done before. Perhaps this works in China’s growing film industry and its burgeoning market for genre films, but there were a hundred different directions the story could have gone, and it’s disappointing that Diao chose the easy way.

The performances aren’t spectacular. They are acceptable, never quite bad, although there aren’t any moments that shine. But this isn’t really surprising in a film that never reaches its potential in any way.

The film isn’t all bad, however. One thing Diao got very right was the decision to set the story in the stark, cold, desolate winter. The snow and ice provide the perfect backdrop for the mystery that unfolds, mirroring the cold way the characters interact with one another. One scene has Zhang, drunk and nearly passed out on the side of the road, covered in snow, his motorcycle beside him. The scene is a throwaway, not meaning much to the plot, but it shows the way Zhang has become isolated. He is all alone in the world, and the frozen setting reminds the audience of that fact in a very effective way.

Overall, the film is kind of a mess. Diao explains the dual titles in English and Chinese as representing reality versus fantasy, but there aren’t elements of the fantastic anywhere to be found, so this explanation makes no sense in the context of the story we are presented. I wanted to like this, but there just wasn’t much to like. There isn’t a truly likable character, or much of a reason to care about the case they’re trying to solve.

The disconnect between the audience and the story is the film’s biggest downfall.

Check out the trailer below: