Film: Black Coal, Thin Ice, directed by Diao Yinan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 8:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 8:28am

Black Coal, Thin Ice
Liao Fan, Kwai Lun-mei
Diao Yinan

Director Diao Yinan's layered, brooding slice of modern Chinese noir was the toast of the Berlin International Film Festival in February, picking up the major awards for best film and best actor (Liao Fan).

While those results turned heads, it was the reception the film received when it played at home that was the real surprise.

Previously, films of this ilk - with its shadowy characters and grimly realised portrayal of life in a northern Chinese town - have struggled to get screen time across the mainland, let alone attract any sort of an audience. But Black Coal, Thin Ice did both, with a wide cinematic release leading to major box office returns of more than 100 million yuan.

The director has since said he hopes those returns will encourage other filmmakers to push the boundaries of Chinese cinema - and we can only hope that a few heed the call.

Diao's film taps into some tried-and-tested noir traditions, presenting a damaged man (Liao) looking for redemption, a femme fatale (Kwai Lun-mei) he is drawn to but can't quite understand, and a world with more wrong than right.

It could have been set in any backwater, anywhere, and the fact that we are in northern China brings with it more novelty value than any scathing insight into society there. After all, people all over the world struggle to make a living, and struggle to make sense of the world when it seems unfair.

Here the plot involves a policeman suspended from duty when an arrest goes wrong. To earn a living, he takes on a job in security and that leads him to a case of murders similar to the one he had been investigating while still on the force. And so our man gets dragged back down and his personal history gets dragged back up.

The film is carried mostly by the strength of Liao's performance as a man drawn into the darkness, one who is trying to roll with life's punches - but they just keep coming. And Diao keeps the viewer guessing until the end. We can only hope there's more to come.

Extras: trailer, photo gallery