Like Chan­dler in China

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

BLACK COAL, THIN ICE Di­rected by Diao Yi­nan. Star­ring Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xue­bing, Wang Jingchun, Wang Yu Ailei, Su Li­juan, Ni Jingyang. Club, IFI, Dublin, 106 min View­ers are ad­vised to pay close at­ten­tion dur­ing this Golden Bear-win­ning noir. A con­tem­po­rary de­tec­tive story with shades of Ham­mett and Chan­dler, Black Coal, Thin Ice twists and turns as it goes: even the jolt­ing elec­tronic mu­sic over the end cred­its springs an­other sur­prise.

The film opens in industrial north­ern China, where, in 1999, pieces of a dis­mem­bered corpse turn up at a coal mine. The dead man, hus­band to a laun­dry worker and the pic­ture’s res­i­dent femme fa­tale, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), is quickly iden­ti­fied, as is the prime sus­pect. Tough cop Zhang (Liao Fan) swoops in to make an ar­rest. Car­nage en­sues.

We fast-for­ward five years and the still trau­ma­tised Zhang now drunk­enly stum­bles through his daily du­ties as a se­cu­rity guard. But when his for­mer part­ner tells him of a sim­i­lar mur­der, Zhang straight­ens up enough to con­duct his own in­ves­ti­ga­tion, fo­cus­ing on Wu, a woman whose dead­ened at­trac­tive­ness serves to move more than one gen­tle­man caller.

Sickly greens and lurid neon blaze through pro­duc­tion de­sign that is like a jaun­diced echo of David Wasco’s work on Pulp Fic­tion. The air­less­ness of the stag­ing serves to heighten the mount­ing ten­sion, as does Dong Jin­song’s shad­owy cin­e­matog­ra­phy.

Against the aes­thetics, this is an ex­tra­or­di­nary phys­i­cal film: soup is slurped, faces are slapped, breasts are groped. Though most of the blood­shed hap­pens coyly off-screen or in the murk, ca­sual vi­o­lence and a

Liao Fan: ster­ling Bog­a­r­tian works as a down­trod­den gumshoe on the case

quick­ness-to-anger is sel­dom far away.

Lion Fan does ster­ling Bog­a­r­tian work as the down­trod­den gumshoe, and Gwei Lun Mei keeps us guess­ing about her in­volve­ment un­til the end. An odd coda un­rav­els the mys­tery only to pose an­other unan­swered ques­tion.

Direc­tor Diao Yi­nan, whose pre­vi­ous Night Train was se­lected for Cannes in 2007, just keeps get­ting bet­ter.

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