Bai Ri Yan Huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice) Review

Posted: March 3, 2014 in 2014 Berlinale, Drama, Foreign, Reviews, Thriller
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

ImageBlack Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo) winning the Golden Bear as Best Film at the 64th Berlinale Festival in February came as no surprise – not because the film merited the honor, but rather because Berlinale juries are notorious for their idiosyncratic and unpopular choices, and the film was not considered a candidate for the top prize leading into the award ceremony. Festival organizers should consider crowdsourcing the selection of the winner of the Competition category. The effectiveness of that approach is on display in the Panorama section of the Berlinale, where audiences picked The Act of Killing and The Broken Circle Breakdown as winners in 2013. Both films went on to earn Academy Award nominations.

It is doubtful that the future holds such promise for Black Coal, Thin Ice though one could argue that there is a crackerjack 90-minute noir locked inside the current 106-minute version.  Director Diao Yinan seeks to channel Hitchcock, but winds up with De Palma in this tale of a disgraced former policeman investigating a murder that may be linked to the case that was his downfall five years earlier. (Point of Clarification: This is De Palma not so much of the fetishistic fun of Dressed to Kill as of the obsessive voyeurism in Body Double.)

Set in a grimy provincial Chinese city, the story opens with the discovery of body parts at a coal plant. The subsequent investigation leads to an almost accidental shootout in a literal bang-bang sequence that shows director Yinan at the top of his game. Two cops are killed and detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is wounded. He survives, but takes the blame, accepts the guilt, quits the job, and develops a drinking problem – all in the time it takes for the screen to fade to black and then return with a “Five Years Later” graphic. With the flawed hero in place, Yinan turns the focus to the femme fatale, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), who is either a fragile flower or a nails-hard bitch working in a dry cleaner. The bulk of the film is spent is yo-yoing the viewer between the two options as Zili conducts his own investigation into a murder that shares similarities to the previous one. Most of the twists work, although once or twice, the audience has to scramble to keep up.

Fan is strong in the lead, though not so strong as Stellan Skarsgård (In Order of Disappearance) or Forest Whitaker (Two Men in Town), two heavyweights he beat out for the Silver Bear as Best Actor. Lun-Mei is equally effective with a performance that straddles the line between victim and perpetrator. Yinan’s work behind the camera in creating a noir atmosphere is generally praiseworthy, particularly with nighttime shots of a garishly lit nightclub and a near-deserted amusement park effectively contrasting with the suffocating grey of the city by day.

The real problem with Black Coal, Thin Ice is that it runs ten minutes past when it should end. What comes after the denouement almost undoes everything previously accomplished. And while learning that the Chinese title, Bai Ri Yan Huo, translates to Daylight Fireworks helps explain the puzzling last scene, it does not provide it with any relevance.

Two and a half stars.

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