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LFF 2014: Black Coal, Thin Ice Review

Black Coal Thin Ice

Director: Diao Yinan.

Starring: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing.

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Synopsis: Having quit after a bungled arrest, an ex-police officer (Liao) becomes embroiled in a murder from 5 years ago.

The first scenes of Diao Yinan’s BLACK COAL, THIN ICE are set back in 1999. We see a number of body parts being discovered amongst layers of coal. It’s a shocking opening, but one that Yinan shoots with a very unintrusive style. What becomes apparent, even this early on, is that we are going to be powerless observers to a dark tale of murder, mystery, and a twisted sense of love.

Absent of obvious heroes, our protagonist is Zhang, a recently divorced cop with a drinking problem. It’s a fairly cliched character in those terms, but Liao isn’t afraid to make his character completely devoid of empathy. He’s pathetic, and that’s where the connection lies. He forcefully kisses his ex-wife as she leaves on a train, and his flaws soon move the plot forward as he becomes obsessed with a young woman whose husband and lovers have a habit of turning up in pieces.

The opening act is also home to a shocking arrest sequence which is over before its begun and will leave audiences as stunned as the arresting officers. It’s shot from a distance in a single take, and the camera doesn’t even move when shit hits the fan. It’s a weird feeling to question what we’ve just seen, especially when it doesn’t follow the rules of cinematic construction we’re familiar with.

The shocks continue throughout and the film doesn’t follow a clear A to B structure. The mystery is resolved fairly early on, and from then we follow the less than responsible relationship between Zhang and widower Wu (Gwei). Having left his job as a policeman to become a security guard, Zhang’s investigations are often suspect in both his motivations and his practice. His unprofessionalism leads to a film which should be difficult to like, but as he is chasing worse evils we can’t help but root for him.


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Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.

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