The legacy of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown hangs heavily over Chinese director Diao Yinan’s latest film Black Coal, Thin Ice. Beyond lifting the framing and the panic-inducing sound design from the memorable ending of Polanski’s film, Yinan revels in the uneasy tone and morally ambiguous protagonist that made Chinatown one of the quintessential noir films. What Yinan lacks however is the screenwriting ability of a Robert Towne, which means some of the key noir tropes that made Chinatown a masterpiece are lacking in Black Coal, Thin Ice.
The film follows Zhang Zili, an ex-detective who is injured in the line of duty. When he is presented with evidence of a serial murder case similar to one he was on five years previously, he takes it upon himself to investigate further. Connecting all of the murders are the facts that the body parts of the victims were being distributed to different coal bunkers and that a woman who works in a dry cleaners knew each of the victims.
Ripe ground for some serious noir you might think. But while the film is engaging if not quite memorable until its Chinatown-style ending, the film reaches this point then continues for another thirty minutes, meandering towards some vague conclusion. These subsequent scenes reveal more and more info behind the case Zhang has been working on, but they feel like little more than “and then this happened” storytelling. It’s as if Yinan could have revealed all the info much earlier without having to lead the audience down the road. By the time we find out all the details of the case, it’s not nearly interesting enough to make up for the drag.
Why did Yinan feel it necessary drag out the story in this manner? In the end, the story turns out to be rather a slight one. We don’t get to know any of the murder victims, their families or what kind of people they were, so they are unsympathetic. But at the heart of the problem is the character of Wu Zhizhen, the lady who works at the dry cleaners. Whereas noir thrives on the idea of the femme fatale and all the character attributes that go along with that, Wu is dull, mopey and harassed. There is nothing in her that seems alive or intriguing, and so the murders of which she is the centre have no risk, because it is impossible to care about her.
This may be down somewhat to the film’s archaic gender politics. Out of the four or so female characters who have lines in the film, two of them get groped at work, and in one case it’s passed off as an hilarious joke, mainly because it’s perpetrated by our hero. The meandering conclusion of the film is also desperately “art house”, in that Yinan clearly had no clue how to do an ending for his film when he skipped over the proper ending thirty minutes earlier. With such an uncertain hand at the helm, it’s difficult to see Black Coal, Thin Ice as anything other than a decent effort.