After watching “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, a haunting noir film from China, you will probably want a hot cup of coffee to warm you. Besides its mystery plot involved with a grisly murder case which casts a long shadow over its main characters, the movie slowly draws our attention with its stark ambience of cold winter nights, and we come to sense that life is indeed hard and difficult for them even without that murder case. There are familiar elements here and there in its rather simple plot, but the movie calmly rolls them with its own distinctive sense of place and people, and it is sometimes poignant to watch little tentative moments of emotions surrounded by its harsh, chilly landscapes.
The prologue part, which makes a sharp contrast to the rest of the film for its sunny summer mood, begins with a dismembered body part being transported to somewhere by a truck along with its load. Not long after it is found and reported to the local police, more body parts are discovered all over the wide area surrounding the city, and Detective Zhang Zilli (Liao Fan) and his partner and other cops cannot find any clear motive behind this horrible murder. The victim turns out to be an ordinary guy with no particular aspect to notice, and his wife gives them no help either while looking devastated by this awful news.
Nevertheless, Zhang and others eventually reaches to the point where they have potential suspects, but then the case is unexpectedly closed due to a very unfortunate incident which changes Zhang’s life forever. Feeling guilty about what happened, Zhang decides to quit his position even though no one blames him for that, and then we are treated with an impressive camerawork which makes a smooth, effortless transition from that point to the other point to take us to one cold, snowy night. Five years have passed, and Zhang becomes an overweight alcoholic loser now (Liao Fan actually gained around 20 kg (44 pounds) for his role), and we see him leading his shabby daily life as a lousy security guard usually late for his work.
And then something comes to perk him up when he is going through his another usual miserable day. He happens to encounter his former partner, who is now promoted to captain, and he tells Zhang about a couple of murders which may be connected with their old case. The victims’ bodies were dismembered and scattered around as before, and there is a horribly humorous scene where an outraged diner customer tells cops how shocked he was to find something which was certainly not what he ordered.
The focus of the investigation has been turned to Wu Zhizehn (Gwei Lun-Mei), who is none other than the first victim’s wife and were also rather close to both of two recent victims. This quiet, enigmatic woman seems to know something about the murders, and Zhang decides to participate in the investigation for finding anything helpful for his former partner’s investigation. He approaches to her as another customer at a dry cleaner shop where she has worked for years, and then he begins to follow her to detect any suspicious sign.
It quickly turns out that she is well aware of his presence behind her, but then he comes more closely to her as someone who can be the next victim on the line. As Zhang and his former partner become more watchful, Zhang and Wu spend more time together, and they later have a nice time on an outdoor rink during one evening despite his clumsy skating skill. It looks like Zhang comes to like her and that feeling might be mutual, but there is always uneasiness in their guarded attitude – even when they can be a little open to each other at one point.
Meanwhile, the movie makes it clear to us that there is really a mysterious killer who may strike again, and it slowly accumulates low-key tension under its calm surface as danger becomes more apparent. The crisp cinematography by Dong Jinsong effectively sets the unnerving mood through thoughtful scene composition and lightings, and the movie glimmers with bleak beauty whenever its characters walk on the streets covered with snow and lighted by neon signs during their cold dark nights.
The actors give the performances correctly measured to the restrained tone of the film while conveying what is possibly held behind their jaded, haggard faces. Liao Fan, who received Best Actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year (the director/writer Yi’nan Diao received Golden Bear award at the festival), is constantly engaging to watch as a flawed hero who willingly grabs a chance to redeem himself a bit at least; he may be going down to the bottom, but Zhang is determined not to go down that easily, and we come to see something admirable in his dogged pursuit. Liao has a memorable scene right before the closing sequence of the movie, and the complex feelings inside his character are touchingly portrayed through his physical gestures as the camera observes him from the distance.
Gwei Lun-Mei is also competent as a woman who may hide more than she suggests; there is a crucial moment reminiscent of a certain famous scene from “The Third Man” (1949), and what is being exchanged between Zhang and Wu is clear to us even though they do not say a lot during that moment. As “the third man” in the story, Wang Xuebing generates enough menace while maintaining his mundane appearance, and Wang Jingchun and Yu Ailei hold their places well as the other substantial supporting characters in the film.
I heard later that the running time of the movie was initially more than 3 hours. I could see a number of gaps in its clunky narrative, and I felt confused at times during my viewing (I am still figuring out the exact role of a certain small note in the middle of the story, for example), but the movie resolves most of its plot well while working as a solid noir film with its style, mood, and performance. I must say I am not as enthusiastic as its eager supporters, but, anyway, it is a good arthouse film to admire for its strong points.
Sidenote: The Chinese title of the movie is “Daylight Fireworks”, which, according to the director, makes a symbolic contrast to its English title. Even if you do not understand what he means, you will understand its meaning around the end of the film.