“Such thrillers are not only an exercise in style; they’re also full of dramatic tension, and when you combine style with dramatic tension, you can easily make a film that’s both good-looking and is an expression of the auteur,” Diao said at the “Wild Goose Lake” news conference. “The social issues that are facing Chinese society at the moment make a fertile soil out of which this kind of film noir grows.”
He added: “In my films and in this film in particular, I try to portray the opposite of a utopia – a space that exists in our inner hearts as a space of mystery and danger but also in the restaurants, bars and gray spaces outside the big cities.”
His film tells the tale of a gangster on the run from the authorities and others who would betray him after he accidentally kills a cop during a fallout with rival gangs over rights to steal bikes from the choicest parts of town. It is based on a real-life event, Diao said.
For him, the violent film about gun-toting gangsters who decapitate each other or, in one scene, run each other through the stomach with an umbrella expresses important mainstream moral values. “The film expresses a person’s inner drive, their aspirations, intention and intensity,” he said. “This honesty and uprightness is something that I hope can be felt by more Chinese viewers, because this is a very traditional energy, a very traditional moral framework that I feel is being lost and falling by the wayside in society today as we develop.”
Chinese actor Hu Ge is best known for his roles in wuxia martial-arts TV series, including his breakout turn in 2005’s “Chinese Paladin” and 2017’s “Nirvana in Fire.” “Wild Goose Lake” marks his first turn as a leading man in a movie. Hu thanked Diao for the opportunity, saying: “It has been a very valuable experience that has made me decide to continue on this path” of film acting.
Preparing for his role as a haggard gangster on the run required a new approach, he said. “With the characters I’ve portrayed before, I’ve tried to be very confident and ensure that I acted as well as possible. This time, I didn’t want this kind of confidence to really take hold of me. I wanted to be full of doubts because I realized that that’s what the character needed, this lack of security and lack of confidence. Up until the end of the shooting, I remained in a state of insecurity and doubt to better portray him.”
His co-star, Taiwan’s Gwei Lun Mei, echoed the sentiment, laughing that, though they hadn’t discussed it before, she too had the same feeling of needing to be open to uncertainty during the shoot. “I also felt unsure of myself and I believe that was exactly what I needed in order to play the character properly.”
Diao said that he wanted the two characters to express themselves through words rather than action. “They’re two very lonely souls who are under great pressure and feel very alone. But I want us to get the sense of the very complicated and refined feelings between these two through actions and gestures rather than words, because otherwise that wouldn’t have matched the style of film.
The film was shot in Wuhan dialect, spoken in the capital of the central province of Hubei, although neither Diao nor his main actors have any ties to the region or its language. They studied the language for months before shooting, and actor Liao Fan (“Black Coal, Thin Ice”) joked that his dialect coach had begun to despair. “He said it kept sounding like I was speaking Sichuanese.”
The choice to use Wuhan dialect ended up being a purely practical one, Diao said. He had originally hoped to shoot the film in Guangdong, but was unable to find a lake there that was close enough to a city or urban village to suit his vision. An attempt to location scout further north in Yinchuan didn’t work out either. In the end, Wuhan – a region that is one of the most dotted with lakes in China – fit the bill.
“Once we chose the city, I asked all the [main] actors to learn a sufficient amount of local dialect so that they could fit in with all the other local actors,” Diao said. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have sounded right for the film. I also thought it would help them to understand their characters.”