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Juan David Restrepo
In snow covered streets surrounded by perpetual darkness detectives and suspects are made distinguishable only by the soft glow of neon signs. Faces are shrouded by shadow, characters motives are unclear. We are in very classic noir territory in Black Coal, Thin Ice.
A brutal murder occurs in Northern China. Severed limbs appear simultaneously across the country in coal plants. The investigation into the murder is botched, leaving detective Zhang Zili injured, ashamed and without a job. Five years later, body parts are found in coal plants. Now an alcoholic and working as a security guard, Zhang once again finds himself in the pursuit of the mysterious mass murderer. The only connection between the two cases is a beautiful dry cleaning assistant Wu Zhizhen, who soon becomes the object of Zhang's obsession.
An intriguing combination of neo-noir and Chinese realism, Black Coal, Thin Ice demonstrates director Yi'nan Diao's genre literacy. From the lighting, to the troubled anti-hero, to the femme-fatale, the film is full of noir tropes. What makes the film unique is the camera's continual shift to the mundane. Unlike the modern Tarantino-inspired trend, the revelations and acts of violence are down-played. Plot takes a back seat to atmosphere as the audience is immersed in a bleak, nihilistic vision of modern China.
Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival, Black Coal, Thin Ice has been a hit with critics but it's hard to see it winning any audience awards. The slow pace and dark, defeatist world view will be a turn off for most audience but if you don't view those as detractors, and if you are a fan of noir then this is a film to see.
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