‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ a Dark Social Commentary of Contemporary China

April 27, 2014 3:15 pm Last Updated: April 27, 2014 3:15 pm

China’s working poor are regularly ignored and exploited, but from their ranks will emerge an unlikely black widow that even James Cain would appreciate. 

Wu Zhizhen toils thanklessly in a provincial dry cleaner, but the last three men to be romantically linked to her met with early demises. Her suspicious misfortune attracts the attention of a disgraced ex-cop in Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice.”

In 1999, hard-boozing detective Zhang Zili is called to investigate the discovery of multiple body parts at the local coal-processing plant. Learning that other pieces have turned up at other facilities, Zhang connects the dots to the Liu brothers, two drivers with a sketchy past. 

However, his routine inquiry goes spectacularly bad. The case is presumed solved, but that will not save his career.

Five years later, an old colleague comes to Zhang for an off-the-books consultation. The widow of the dismembered coal corpse has just lost her third significant other to foul play. 

The two more recent bodies were both found wearing ice skates, suggesting an obvious pattern. Seeking some sort of personal satisfaction, Zhang starts following Wu, but she is neither careless nor easily intimidated. However, as she gets used to his presence, she starts to entertain his overtures.

Like a Taiwanese Bette Davis, Gwei Lun-Mei is a deceptively innocent looking femme fatale, but still a powerfully seductive screen presence. Well suited for Wu, she keeps audience sympathies sharply divided and expectations off-balance throughout “Coal.” She is also probably the biggest international movie star gracing Tribeca screens this year.

Conversely, Fan Liao revels in Zhang’s anti-heroics and degenerate binging. In fact, his flaws run so deep that he had to be cashiered from the police force to satisfy the Chinese censorship board. Intriguingly off-kilter in a hardnosed kind of way, Fan deservedly won the Silver Bear at Berlin for his work.

In a way, “Coal” bridges the gap between Chinese “indie films” and commercial releases to a surprising extent. Everything that goes down in Diao’s narrative is ultimately attributable to systemic injustice and inequity. 

Wu may very well be involved in something nefarious, but it is impossible to judge her harshly. Yet, this pointed social commentary proved to be a monster hit at the Chinese box office.

“Coal” could be considered a Chinese noir in the tradition of “Fargo.” The weather is cold, the landscape is grim, and people often behave in a dark and unpredictable manner. It is all definitely good stuff. 

Highly recommended, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is a head-and-shoulders standout at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where it screens Saturday, April 26.

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com


‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’
Director: Diao Yinan
Starring: Fan Liao, Gwei Lun-Mei, Wang Xuebing
Run Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: April 19
Not Rated

4 stars out of 5