Diao Yinan’s disarming frozen noir begins in 1999 in northern China, where we follow the progress of a package mixed in with a coal delivery to a plant, where it is discovered to be a severed hand. Several other body parts are found in other coal shipments, and recently divorced mess-of-a-cop Zhang (Liao Fan) is part of a team called in to work the case. The investigation has barely started, however, before an attempted arrest at a beauty salon turns into an unholy clusterfuck that results in Zhang taking a bullet and losing his place on the force. In 2004 we find him a drunken wreck with a gig as security guard at a coal factory, when a chance encounter with an old colleague leads to his becoming entangled with the case again. With nothing else in his life to cling to, he quickly becomes obsessed, both with the investigation, and with the widow (Gwei Lun Mei) around whom it all seems to revolve…
While all the ingredients for a standard policer are present and correct, and plot wise, there’s nothing new here, Diao seems to take great delight in taking things apart and making them strange; it’s slow burning and snowbound and largely music-free. There’s an absence of Hollywood glamour, and everyone and everything looks a bit shabby and worn down. His femme fatale is skinny and passive and taciturn, unable to stop the unwelcome attentions of her boss at her unrewarding dry cleaning job. Our hero rides a crappy scooter after having his bike nicked. Following a police interview, a witness turns the corner of her residential block to find a horse in the corridor, in a typical scene that doesn’t advance the story much, but suggests a dysfunctional world of absurdity and neglect.
Visually, the film is extraordinary: the camera continually does unexpected things, the framing is unconventional, fights and shocking moments disappear off camera or appear in deadpan medium shots. The passage of time from 1999 to 2004 is accomplished in one majestic take, as we ride with Zhang’s car through a motorway tunnel to find him sprawled drunkenly on the other side. There’s a magically odd skating sequence where Zhang pursues the widow as she glides, impossibly smoothly, into the darkness, a Strauss waltz playing over Tannoy speakers. The days are harsh white, the nights taken over by yellow sodium and coloured neon.
All of this visual invention does not alter the conventional heart that beats at the centre of the narrative. There’s a hard-drinking cop, a woman who spells trouble, a killer to chase and a mystery to solve. But it does make Black Coal, Thin Ice engaging, and raises it a cut above the rest. There’s a mood of melancholy underlying the piece, a sense that justice may well be served, but love will be crushed along the way. Everybody seems to be lonely and lost and hurting, and this atmosphere, and the film’s off-kilter focus, make it linger in the memory.