Frosty Mood Stiffens People, Mystery in 'Black Coal, Thin Ice'

Directed by: Diao Yinan; Runtime:
Grade: C+

The mystery/thriller genre has an extensive history of elevating recurring plot ideas with the right visual tempo, where the immersion involved in capturing an environment's atmosphere and culture can give the suspense its own unique qualities. In the same vein, imagery can also prove to be a distraction from shallow plotting, and distinguishing between the two often boils down to the individual. Black Coal, Thin Ice (aka Bai Ri Yan Huo, or Daylight Fireworks), the award-winning neo-noir thriller from Diao Yinan, toes that line between immersion and distraction in its depiction of macabre murders in a moderately-sized industrial city, a case that leads to the disgrace -- and, eventually, the desire for redemption -- of the detectives attached. Haunting, organic photography guides a stark point-of-view through a mix of neon lights and a dark wintry haze, yet the visual flair and the grounded substance of the performances contained within aren't enough to disguise the slender, anticlimactic mystery propelling it.

Black Coal, Thin Ice starts out in 1999, with police detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) feeling the emotional after-effects of a divorce shortly before getting involved with a brutal murder case. Like flower petals, several limbs severed from a body are found at coal plants across northern China, paired with enough evidence to pursue leads. Events that occur while the police connect those dots go sour and result in dismissals from the force, sending Zhang Zili into a downward spiral. Several years pass where the disgraced, alcoholic cop struggles with sustaining a security job, something that changes after he reconnects with his old partner, who informs him that several other murders have occurred exactly like the infamous one that led to his removal from the force. An opportunity for personal and professional absolution mixed with reminiscence of his glory days leads Zhang Zili to assist in rekindling the investigation, directing him through the doors of a dry-cleaning business employing a woman, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), with potential ties to the victims.

Strategic framing of industrialized and urban areas, vibrant colors oppressed by the frigidity of winter, and a careful flow of movement across the landscape establish a severe, oddly entrancing atmosphere for Black Coal, Thin Ice. Director Diao Yinan displays a confident eye for stillness and subtle motion in his images, concentrating on posture and gestures during conversations in everyday areas and focusing on the expressive body language of focal characters walking, running, even skating through the setting. He also employs a menacing technique of accentuating the morbidity of situations, nonchalantly and unflinchingly alert to the quickness in which circumstances can change based on the maneuverings of dangerously motivated people. Everything errs towards this mythical, yet grounded attitude about the hunt for the killer, down to the unsettling discovery of those chopped-up body parts scattered about the country, relishing the deliberate pace in which these discoveries and moments of violence emerge in the physically and emotionally frigid surroundings.

Despite believably gritty performances from everyone connected to the murders, the characters caught in the mystery of Black Coal, Thin Ice lack much depth beyond stiff noir-like qualities, limiting the film's breadth as any kind of character study. Liao Fan handles the dual sides of Zhang Zili's personality with soulful clarity, transforming him from a lucid professional with miserable determination to a boozy lout driven by incensed retribution, yet there's little more to the antihero than his melancholy hardness while sleuthing. The enigmatic femme fatale he stalks and probes doesn't possess much beyond her enigmas, either: Gwei Lun-Mei aptly portrays a recoiled women with an impenetrable secret, but something's missing in her cautious body language when interrogated at the dry cleaners and in her ice-skating endeavors. Elements of solitude and sticking to convictions, familiar echoes of the film noir genre, intermittently act like they're about to come to the surface by way of the pair's melancholy chemistry, yet are prevented from breaking out by their perpetual dourness.

Unless the femme fatale is at the forefront with her unreadable, distressed attitude, the murder mystery itself lying underneath Black Coal, Thin Ice musters little curiosity or momentum beyond a periodic inclination towards unexpected death. The grim pacing of its meandering chain of questionable developments seems built for a dramatic character examination or social takedown that never fully materializes, inching its way towards a reveal of the killer and their motives that, as a result, are lacking in suspenseful impact. Director Diao Yinan telegraphs the shifting allegiances and cathartic revelations one might expect of the subgenre from an atmospheric but narratively sparse viewpoint, protracted by lengthy shots -- especially leading up to the end -- that emphasize a distorted blur of realistic conditions in northern China with vague illusory actions of the people contained within. Instead of elevating Black Coal, Thin Ice's familiar components, the artfulness of the director's style instead concocts a moody neo-noir portrayal of discontent individuals that's less than the sum of its moving parts.

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