The spirits of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain course through “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” a bleak but powerful, carefully controlled detective thriller in which — as with all the best noirs — there are no real heroes or villains, only various states of compromise. A most curious hybrid of genre movie and art film, drenched in neon and wintry industrial bleakness, this third feature by the gifted mainland Chinese director Diao Yinan reps a significant advance in scale and craftsmanship over his festival favorites “Uniform” (2003) and “Night Train” (2007), with the potential to penetrate modestly further into the commercial sector.
Diao, who began his career as a screenwriter for director Zhang Yang (“Shower,” “Spicy Love Soup”), first showed an affinity for noir in his debut pic, where an aimless young man working in his family’s laundry business took to impersonating a police officer. (In a sly nod to that film, the plot of “Black Coal” also comes to revolve around a laundry shop and a particular unclaimed item.) This time, the cops are real, but there is much that is not as it first appears in Diao’s tale of a grisly crime from the past that returns to haunt the characters a half-decade later.
The setting is a northern Chinese factory district, circa 1999, and the coal of the title is where a set of dismembered human remains turns up in the movie’s opening scenes. The dead man is identified as Liang Zhijun, a worker in one of the local plants and husband to a laundry worker, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei). Enter a no-nonsense detective, Zhang (Liao Fan), who quickly identifies a suspect. But what should be a routine arrest goes awry, turning into one of the more imaginatively staged shootouts in recent movies — by turns comic, absurd and, finally, brutally efficient.
We then jump forward five years to find Zhang, still traumatized by the carnage of ’99, drunk and dissolute, having abandoned the force for a post as a security guard. In a chance encounter with his former partner, he learns that two factory workers have newly turned up dead and dismembered in eerily similar fashion to the earlier case. At which point, Zhang decides to begin his own investigation, starting with the widow Wu herself. Her late husband, it seems, isn’t the only man who’s met his maker in the last five years after getting close to her, and Zhang’s deductive nose, when it isn’t buried in alcohol, tells him something is amiss. So he becomes a customer of the laundry shop, and takes to following his femme fatale by night (so clumsily that she quickly catches on to him).
Whether or not she’s a lethal “black widow,” Wu Zhizhen is clearly a woman of secrets, and Gwei (star of the 2012 Taiwanese hit “Girlfriend Boyfriend”) has just the right dark, glassy-eyed beauty to play a woman trapped by desperate circumstance. (In the 1940s Hollywood version, Lana Turner or Ida Lupino would have made a good fit, while it’s easy to imagine Bogart or Mitchum in the detective role.) Exactly how and why Wu suffers is something we discover gradually, as Zhang does, in the movie’s second half. And the more the pieces of the puzzle come together, and the closer Zhang grows to Wu (on and off the job), the richer “Black Coal, Thin Ice” grows in its air of pulp romantic fatalism.
Throughout, Diao maintains an impressive mood of unease and encroaching danger, which carries the film forward even when the plotting becomes a touch too knotty for its own good (though nothing that mystery buffs won’t be able to parse with a few minutes of concentrated reflection). Besides, a certain opacity may well be part of Diao’s grander design. Though it is a less overtly political film than Jia Zhangke’s recent “A Touch of Sin,” “Black Coal, Thin Ice” does proffer a similarly dark and blood-soaked portrait of a China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources and everyone is standing on dangerous ground. All that’s missing is for Diao to have someone tell our forlorn hero, “Forget it Zhang, it’s China.”
Together with d.p. Dong Jinsong (“11 Flowers”), Diao devises many inventive approaches to scenes, from the dazzling tracking shot that carries us forward from 1999 to 2004, to an unexpected fireworks finale that lends “Black Coal” a perfect absurdist punctuation. Art director Liu Qiang enhances the mood of working-class despair with a series of wonderfully seedy bars, police stations and assorted other holes in the wall.