In northern China, a series of recent murders grab the attention of two former cops, who lost their jobs after investigating a similar crime years earlier. 

Moody thriller signals audacious new era.

We reviewed 'Black Coal, Thin Ice' at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival. SBS subsequently acquired it and it is available for streaming at SBS On Demand. Follow the links below to watch the film in full, and see our interview with director Diao Yinan, above.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: After successive ‘waves’ of Chinese mainland filmmakers, the Fifth Generation (lush, pageant-like, visually splendid) yielding slowly to the Sixth (minimal, downbeat, quotidian), it’s something of a relief to see a crop of new directors emerging, unaffiliated with any formal movement and untethered to a particular style.* Diao Yinan’s third feature represents an international breakthrough, having won the Gold Bear at the Berlinale. But it’s also a weird and unclassifiable work, as unlike anything else coming out of China right now as it was an outlier in the Berlin festival lineup.

We open in 1999, in Heilongjiang province in northeast China, where a package left in a dumpster turns out to be part of a human body; further remains, of what appears to be the same victim, are found in a coal factory a number of miles away. The question of geography proves crucial, here: someone has undoubtedly been murdered, but their remains have been scattered across a one hundred kilometre radius, in places too remote from each other for any single murderer to have dumped them.

A cop, Detective Zhang, begins to investigate. The victim is soon identified as one Liang Zhijun, who worked in a local coal mine, and Zhang soon manages to collar two suspects, brothers Liu Fayin and Liu Faxing, among his co-workers. But their arrest descends into a gun battle, and both men are killed, along with two police; Zhang, meanwhile, is badly wounded.

Five years later—and he’s a drunk, barely holding down a job as a factory security guard. Still haunted by the events of that night, he’s therefore both intrigued and unnerved when one of his former colleagues turns up with some information: two more bodies have been found, in circumstances that bear distinct similarities to the earlier case. And (as Columbo would say) there’s one more thing. Both victims knew the same woman: Wu Zhizhen, who works at a local dry-cleaner’s, and who just happens to be the widow of that first victim, from years before…

With its drab, wintery setting and ‘black widow’ figure, and its messed-up, hard-bitten investigator, driven by a quixotic desire to right a wrong few have either noticed or care about, this is a clear tribute to the Hollywood films noir of the 1940s. Which is noteworthy for a mainland feature—though not without precedent: Zhang Yimou’s third feature, after all, 1990’s Ju Dou, was a loose re-telling of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

"Mood is everything, here"

Mood is everything, here. Diao’s framing and use of negative space, coupled with the desolation of the setting, generate a perpetual state of unease. And if the narrative occasionally wobbles—feeling, at times, more like a collection of powerful, disquieting scenes than a tightly cohesive whodunit—a number of those moments prove startling. The climactic shoot-out, in the opening section, is as brutal, chaotic and unexpected as any I can recall; it communicates a sense of actual violence in a way that most on-screen confrontations emphatically do not. Likewise, a scene in which Chang and Wu go skating together, at night, crackles with tension and conflicting energies: the lure of his fascination with her, coupled with his growing suspicion that she might, in fact, be a murderer… All amplified by the twinkly prettiness of the setting, and the sharpness of their blades, slicing against the ice. You sense Hitchcock himself would be proud.

As Zhang, Fan Liao (superb in Fendou Liu’s 2004 policier Green Hat) strikes precisely the right balance of world-weariness and tenacity. Heavy-lidded and taciturn, he feels like an Eastern analogue to the classic noir heroes—Mitchum, Bogart, Robert Ryan. But Diao’s most intriguing choice is the casting of his female lead. As Wu, Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun Mei makes for a most unexpected femme fatale. She’s mousey and plain, passive rather than charismatic. But there’s something oddly mask-like about her features, a glassy sort of emptiness to her gaze, and it works to the character’s advantage. Even when the weight of suspicion falls upon her, her guilt seems faintly unlikely—however, as Zhang learns, you underestimate her at your peril.

It’s not quite as powerful or assured as Cai Shangjun’s People Mountain People Sea (2011), which seems more and more to be the great ‘lost’ Chinese movie of the decade thus far, premiering at Venice (where it won an award for Best Director) before all but vanishing from sight. This one, garlanded at Berlin, already enjoys more international visibility and attention. But, like that film, it’s also part of a small but audacious number of regional-set critiques of China’s economic boom, and its social cost: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Yang Li’s Blind Shaft… All fiercely moral works, addressing the declining value of human life and the prevalence of corruption. Things are changing in the Middle Kingdom, they acknowledge—but not entirely or necessarily for the better.

* I say ‘see’, but should acknowledge that our perspective on this most energetic and diverse of film cultures is partial at best, limited to what appears in international festivals and via distribution. Of the 745 theatrical features produced in China last year, less than half made it into local cinemas—and only a fraction of that number, in turn, were seen by international audiences. A genuine understanding of ‘where Chinese mainland filmmaking is at’ is therefore beyond all but a handful of specialists, most of them in-country.

Watch 'Black Coal, Thin Ice' at SBS on Demand