Monday, 10 November 2014


The grim darkness of Black Coal Thin Ice is set out in the opening scenes: coal on a train dumped into a conveyor belt, with a severed hand lurking amongst the lumps of black. Meanwhile, in a bleak hotel room Zhang, a police detective, has silent sex which itself seems almost disembodied, with a woman who turns out to be his wife, which we learn when she hands him the divorce papers just before she leaves on a train. Zhang tries to stop her from going; an umbrella springs open on the platform; Zhang falls to the ground; she is gone. He kicks a bottle down the stairs. 'There's no point in crying, you're just wasting time'.

Back on the job the coal-stained body part leads Zhang to a beauty parlor where what should be a routine arrest goes wrong, and he is shot in a scene laid out as creatively as John Woo at his peak. But the shootout has more mundane consequences for Zhang.

Five years later Zhang is a security guard, in a coal factory, living a bleak life which centers on drinking the past into oblivion. Then body parts start showing up again, body parts and ice skates, and Zhang finds himself pulled back into the investigation. Which leads him to a beautiful but enigmatic clerk in a dry cleaners, and Zhang, trying somehow to redeem himself as a cop, begins to become obsessed with her, propelling him into the equal dangers of finding the killer and making something of this once again silent, withdrawn sort of relationship. Thinking she may hold the key to the puzzle puts her in line to be a victim herself, but Diao realises that the detective and the potential lover share many of the same characteristics: both are investigating to see if what they see of a person is really there.

Writer-director Diao Yinan blens the grittiest of backgrounds and the most depressing flatness of life with an almost mystic undercurrent, like Marquez writing a hard-boiled detective novel. He touches bases with most of the familiar tropes of modern noirish film, not least Zhang's apparently feeling comfortable only in the presence of his fellow cops. But the distinctive combination which Diao blends here seems to make a statement about China itself, presented as an almost two-dimensional world of hidden darkness, where the personal hides under the surface. Diao creates some brilliant visual metaphors, including the various uses of coal, conveyors, and trains. Ice skating figures into the mix, with the characters gliding or stumbling on the ice, and at one point engaging in a chase along a frozen path away from the rink. There are fireworks and ferris wheels, public spaces where people are supposed to share but move in their own circles, as you would on a skating rink, and finally a brilliant tango scene that recalls Marlon Brando and sees Zhang doing his own steps while everyone else sticks to the programmed pattern.

As Zhang, Liao Fan is brilliant: a mix of bravado and insecurity, a man at home with that inevitable realisation that you may uncover something you don't really want to find out. Gwei Lun-Mei is his perfect foil as the withdrawn clerk who holds the secret to the killings; she is beautiful in a way that invites sa man's protection while at the same time suggesting something beyond a dry cleaner's. The story resolves with a clever twist that makes perfect sense, and propels us back to the film's beginning, where we see understanding both love and death are equally difficult. Black Coal, Thin Ice is one of the best detective films I've seen in a long time, and Liao is a director who draws you into his story and makes you live the pace of his vision. Brilliant.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China/Hong Kong 2014)
written & directed by Diao Yinan
starring Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, Wang Xue-Bing

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time (

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