Film Review: Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice”

By Ismary Muent

The camera follows a bagged body buried in coal through the factory tunnels, and a detached half of an arm surfaces to the top of the dark coal as a worker spots it and asks for the line to be shut down. This is the opening to Diao Yinan’s eery “Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火).”

The Chinese detective noir film “achieved the miraculous triple whammy of winning over critics, captivating the audience, and pleasing the notorious Film Bureau censorship panel. All this achieved without martial arts clichés or special effects, potentially signaling a new era of Chinese filmmaking,” CNN’s Zoe Li said explaining how this film has captivated and changed the world of cinema; specifically in China.

By factory workers, other body parts are rumored to have also been found in the coal factories of Qingyuan, Ping Baishui, and Zhicheng, which causes people to come to the conclusion that it can’t only be one body.

After being shot in the line of duty, and failing to effectively solve this case, divorced and drunken detective Zhang ends up working as security for a coal factory, but soon reunites with his old partner, who is now a detective, Wang and learns that all the deaths have been romantically linked to a woman and laundry shop clerk: Wu Zhizhen.

As Zhang tries to take up matters into his own vigilante hands, he himself gets romantically involved with the mysterious and alluring Zhizhen. The wintery setting and snow covered landscape of the film resonates not only Zhang’s struggle, but what seems as the struggle of the people as a whole in contemporary China.

Diao successfully intertwines thriller themes, with ongoing suspense and bloody scenes that are sure to make you squint, with that of tragedy and romance. His film won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

“But memories, good or bad, never fade,” says the owner of the Daylight Fireworks Club as she gives Zhang the clue in solving the case, and also serves as a reminder that the past tends to catch up with us. This is specifically true in Zhizhen’s case.

The film ends with firefighters being elevated on a crane in order to put out illegal fireworks caused by a drunk. The ending raises questions and somewhat confusion, but adds to Diao’s philosophical and absurdist effect.

Director: Diao Yinan
Screenwriter: Diao Yinan
Producer: Vivian Qu
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Associate Producer: Wan Juan
Cinematographer: Dong Jinsong
Composer: Wen Zi
Co-Producer: Shen Yang
Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang

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