Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan’s third feature film, employs a bifurcated narrative about multi-furcated corpses to expose a world that has been furcated so many times that pieces of the whole are rendered enigmas, no more recognizable as distinct entities than so many lumps of emotionless coal. Sure, the individual chunks exist – like the individual humans – but the oppressive weight of the leviathan conglomerate of empty humanity inundates all individuality. People in Black Coal, Thin Ice tread on thin ice, but their fate is even more precarious because the girth of the world hangs over them, cracking the ice with every strained step. The post-industrial haze of northern China suffused the air long ago, and the gravid lethargy of billowing smoke laying its fate down on every person is omnipresent in the film. Humans don’t stride with confidence and purpose. They crawl through a somnambulant world that displays little interest in slapping anyone awake.
He faces stiff competition, but Detective Zhang (Liao Fan) may face the most ragged crawl of anyone. Initially tasked with finding a murderer dumping body parts in disparate coal trucks, Zhang takes a five year sabbatical – more a stupor – when an arrest goes awry, the investigation left hanging in the air like the clouded soot that engulfs everyone in the film. When bodies begin to turn up in 2004, five years after the initial failed investigation, Zhang emerges from a slumber, but his gait is hunched and his crawl stunted. Sometimes he doesn’t even give off an air of trying, but his haunch belies a soul-suffering curiosity to find peace, or to stave off another day in a seemingly purposeless land by grasping on to shards of purpose found like diamonds in the coal.
When Zhang reconnects with the only link in the chain of the murders – Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), a laundry clerk whose husband was the first victim in ’99 – Zhang threatens to find more purpose than he initially beckoned. It’s a classical noir story of a deadened world that reminds itself of life in the potential for romance only long enough for the shards to come crashing down, taking rekindled romance down to the underworld with them. Gwei Lun Mei carries herself with recalcitrance and dusky mystique but no femme fatale strutting. She’s clearly hiding something, but Black Coal, Thin Ice doesn’t always care to look. It is more invested in pondering the worth of finding skeletons in the closet when there are so many bones openly strewn about the land in the first place.
Zhang follows her – stalks her, more appropriately – but his purpose muddies the line between concern for the crime, lust for her, a desire to foreclose his past loss, and the more elemental and simple hope to find or retain what desperately dying pulse he still has. The answer to the crime may not matter – following her, adopting a predatory facade that may be predatory fact – gives him something to do, but following lonely women around in the moonlight isn’t exactly a path to saving your soul now is it?
The film’s prowling predation achieves true deathless sublimity in a prolonged ice skating sequence that most literally shows off the film’s sharpest incision into the corpse of the noir world: toxic, neon-hued technicolor dementia. For a film that trumpets its absence of color right on the tin, Jingsong Dong’s color palette flares between monochromatic mutedness and shocking, abrupt orgasms of primary-colored madness with surprising ease. An ice rink through one eye is a chilly blue limbo from another; a car trip takes the form of a red and green anti-Holiday cocktail of fiery crimson passion and sickly, almost malarial green haze. Color bathes the characters and draws out their inner essences – the film’s use of the aforementioned green to suffuse people in a drip of carcinogenic sickness is a revelation in particular. The black and white world of the noir fills in not with shades of grey but with every conceivable color under the rainbow. Yet somehow, the film makes those colors feel as grey and merciless as they were before the rainbow found them. Color is not a beacon of life, but a disguise the grey uses to sneak up on its prey.
It is tempting to politicize Yinan’s screenplay or the film’s use of color, and fragments of dilapidated modern China permeate throughout. Black Coal, Thin Ice’s tone, however, is not only tentatively location-specific, but pressingly generalizable. Liu Qiang’s art direction peers into a world where the gutter is the only escape from the ascetically barren grey of the dive bar, but his almost placeless depiction of space is intentionally muted and ambiguous. It might be LA in the 1940s with Humphrey Bogart playing the Zhang role, or Paris in the ’60s with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Thus is the neglected universe of the noir – forever just out of reach, but always just right in front of you for the picking. Probably because, no matter where you live, an uncaring world sometimes feels like the only world we’ve ever known.