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Black Coal, Thin Ice - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Bai Ri Yan Huo

China 2014

Thriller, Crime, Drama

Diao Yinan

Liao Fan
Gwei Lun-Mei
Wang Xuebing
Wang Jingchun
Yu Ailei
Ni Jingyang

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Black Coal, Thin Ice

Story: In 1999 police officer Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is called to a coal depot. A body part has been found on the band-conveyor. It turns out that in the coal depots of several nearby cities body parts have been found, too. The police faces a mystery. But Zhang can't investigate the case any longer since he suffers from a breakdown after surviving a shooting not connected to the case while two of his colleagues die. Five years later he struggles with alcohol addiction and works as a security guard. By chance, he runs into an old colleague who tells him that once again body parts have been found. The suspect is the wife of the man killed five years ago. It seems that everyone who gets close to Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei) ends up dead. Zhang decides to investigate the case on his own. He doesn't just get to know Wu as an alleged customer of the dry-cleaner's she works at, but even stalks her from that day on. Although it soon turns out that someone else has to be the killer Wu is still shrouded by a mist of danger.

Review: "Black Coal, Thin Ice" is a neo-noir film that has been showered with praise by critics. At the Berlin International Film Festival it even won the Golden Bear Award. Which makes you wonder how something like this comes to pass. Some critic took a shine to the cold, snowy pictures as well as the mysterious, eerie atmosphere and took the slow pacing and the seemingly profound pictures for sophisticated art house cinema. And other critics just jumped on the bandwagon. Well, the common viewer will deal with this movie in a more honest way. Because the pictures may in fact be enchanting and the atmosphere is cold and eerie in an interesting manner, but this neo-noir flick also turns out to be lengthy and pretentious.

Black Coal, Thin Ice - Film Screenshot 11

The story is actually a pretty classic one. A fallen cop hunts a killer from a case that he couldn't solve. In the process it turns out that all clues somehow point to a mysterious woman who maybe is or maybe isn't the killer. At the same time the investigator falls for the woman and her chilly charm of aloofness, even though he is quite aware that this romance is not heading for a happy ending. What in fact makes "Black Coal, Thin Ice" stand out from similar works are its fascinating pictures and the somehow muffled atmosphere, as if a thick layer of snow covers everything, absorbing all sound. No doubt, this is appealing and the image composition is really convincing. There is also some camera work that is very original, showing the artistic talent of director Diao Yinan.

Black Coal, Thin Ice - Film Screenshot 12

However, Diao fails on an emotional level. The characters are all incredibly reserved, making it difficult for the viewer to develop an interest in the events on screen. Instead you oftentimes believe to stand in a gallery where you slowly wander from one picture, which is quite easy to the eyes, to the next. The emphasis lies on "slowly" as the movie's pacing is oftentimes so slow that you start to wonder if really anything would have got lost if the flick would have only clocked in at merely half an hour. After all, the extra time the protagonists get sadly isn't used for showing their deep personalities. Gwei Lun-Mei ("Secret", "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate") is supposed to give something inscrutable to her role and in fact there is something that seems to be weighing on Wu's shoulders almost beyond all bearing. But this doesn't really make her character that three-dimensional.

In a subtle manner Liao Fan ("Curiosity Kills the Cat") shows a little bit more of the inner workings of his role. Be it his fascination for Wu or one of the many absurd scenes, in which he starts dancing, for example, in order to cope with his inner pain and his conflicting emotions. Surprisingly, Zhang's romantic entanglement with Wu stands as one of the movie's fortes. There is something forbidden and dangerous about it, whereas the emotional coldness of the two actually is fitting to their relationship. The constant snow flurry, the iceskating, the cold buildings etc. intensify the impression of a country having undergone extreme changes of urbanization concerning its landscape. "Black Coal, Thin ice" doesn't want to be outright political, though. There are just a few flashes of social criticism coming from under the surface every now and then.

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Still, that a more obvious political approach is possible without steering the overall work into a direction where it is on the verge of being suffocated by a presumptuous wannbe-profound atmosphere has already been proven by "A Touch of Sin", which undoubtedly shows certain parallels. The problem with "Fireworks in broad daylight" (which is the literal title) is that it wants to come across smarter than it actually is. The search for the killer drags on and on, and even though the pacing might shift up a gear on a few occasions towards the end the story is certainly not as enthralling as it could have been. The experienced thriller fan will soon have connected all dots of the case. Particularly the abstruse ending, with which director Diao apparently aimed at making as many viewers scratch their heads as possible, is after all not that ambiguous or smart at all. Because it's absolutely obvious who is standing on the rooftop. Accordingly, if you take a look under the surface of this alleged smart and profound neo-noir film you will find a lot of smoke and mirrors - just as is the case with fireworks.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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