Black Coal, Thin Ice Blu-ray review

A small object rides lifeless in the back of a truck delivering coal. It is dumped at a refinery and then scooped into a factory. Inside, a worker notices the object and halts the line. Only when the camera stops on it does the viewer sees what it is: a hand.

It turns out that several other body parts have been found around various plants. One of the workers wonders if the head has been found. Another heard a breast was discovered. One of the detectives assigned to the case is Zhang Zili (Liao Fan, 2008’s OCEAN FLAME), who is recently divorced and so in a way missing a part of his own self. While zeroing in on a potential suspect, Zhang Zili finds himself responsible for a botch.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Five years later in 2004, Zhang Zili is found working as a security guard, spending his days far from the excitement of detective life and closer to the bottle. He has remained in contact with one of his former colleagues, Wang (Yu Ailei, 2011’s THE LOST BLADESMAN), who is investigating crimes that may have a link to those a half-decade earlier. A key figure in the new case is a laundry shop clerk named Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei, 2008’s GIRLFRIEND BOYFRIEND), whose husband was a previous victim.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Those more familiar with the genre will pick up on the numerous clichés—there’s the disgraced former cop, the attractive connection, the unfinished business laid to rest, etc.—but still may be intrigued by what director Diao Yinan (2007’s NIGHT TRAIN, which competed for the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival) brings. BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (its Chinese title is BAI RAI YAN HUO, which translates to DAYLIGHT FIREWORKS, which in turn sounds far less like something that would star Willie Mays Hayes and Jesse Ventura) introduces itself as a run-of-the-mill police procedural but manages to step outside of the confines and make itself stand out as a smartly paced and developed effort that seamlessly weaves with noir.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Aiding in making the movie more compelling than one may initially suspect is a stellar cast (Liao Fan won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival; Gwen Lun-Mei gives a quiet, stunning performance), who portray their characters with the degree of complexity they have been written with, and atmospheric cinematography by Jingsong Dong (2011’s 11 FLOWERS), who gives the film an icy tone that seems to warn the characters (so, too, do the opening credits, which are accompanied by a looming silence).

Black Coal, Thin Ice

BLACK COAL, THIN ICE won the Golden Bear at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, besting works such as Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD and Alain Resnais’ LIFE OF RILEY. It is one of just four Chinese films to win the honor, following Zhang Yimou’s RED SHORGUM (1988), Xie Fei’s WOMAN SESAME OIL MAKER (1993) and Wang Quan’an’s TUYA’S MARRIAGE (2007).


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