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A woman looks back on her family's life in Tokyo before and during WWII. A maid arrives from the countryside to work for an upper middle class family. She fits in well, but everyone's emotions are stirred up with the arrival of a student.
It seems that, every few years, there are one or two Chinese films that, despite being slow-paced, dark, and lacking A-list stars, somehow manage to attract a large domestic audience without being controversial enough to risk complete censorship. In 2014, the only example I have seen so far is this, Black Coal, Thin Ice. The reason for its domestic success is presumably because of its awards at the Berlin Film Festival.
As the story unfolds, despite being based around a series of murders, the film has a pace more similar to an art-house film than a crime- thriller. A couple of scenes were impressively disturbing, made even more so by the slow paced, subtle atmosphere surrounding them.
The setting of a polluted, dark, seedy city in a long Heilongjiang winter seems perfect for the noir tone of the film. A subtle musical score, with some dissonant strings combined with (terrible) Chinese pop songs (intra-diegetic) creates a fantastic atmosphere. The closest thing to it I have seen is Suzhou River, which, now I come to think of it, has a lot of similar motifs (I haven't seen Diao Yinan's previous films).
The acting performances were all impressive, the female lead (played by Taiwanese Gwei/Gui Lun-Mei) seemed suitably out of place in the Far Northeast of Mainland China. Liao Fan's male lead, and Wang Xuebing's character, were both impressive.
Despite a bit of dark humour that made me giggle, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a relentlessly grim and slightly disturbing film. I was impressed that it wasn't (more) censored in China, as it paints a pretty depressing picture. Despite being enthralled by the film, I won't be booking a flight to Heilongjiang any time soon.
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