Film Review: ‘The Wild Goose Lake’

Diao Yinan delivers a definitive Chinese crime noir, in which the ravishing style and inventive staging form the substance.

Diao Yinan
Hu Ge, Gwei Lun Mei Liao Fan, Wan Qian, Qi Dao, Huang Jue, Zeng Meihuizi, Zhang Yicong, Chen Yongzhong. (Mandarin dialogue)

1 hour 53 minutes

In any film noir, there is The Moment It All Goes Wrong. But it is unlikely you will soon see that moment, or any of the genre’s other staple plot points, staged and executed with quite the slick, dark dazzle of Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake.” At an underworld gathering, held in the dingy amphitheater of a hotel basement, a few dozen grimy gangsters are learning the latest techniques in motorcycle theft. Then comes the parceling out of territories in the unnamed nearby city, and a squabble erupts over a lucrative zone. A shot rings out, a brawl ensues, lit by one swinging light bulb and imagined in a serious of punchy closeups: a grimacing face in a half-nelson; a bloodied, tattooed knuckle; a prosthetic being ripped from its limb. It’s a scene we’ve watched a hundred times before, but here it feels electrifyingly new.

With his Berlinale-winning “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” Diao fused China-noir with arthouse social realism to deliver a strange, potent cocktail that left a lingering, headache-y sustain. This time, the sociopolitical subtext may be absent along with the hangover, but there is something almost profound in how comprehensively “The Wild Goose Lake” imagines film noir belonging in China’s seedy, second-tier suburban underbelly. Diao’s film is far from the first to find the oily neons of nighttime noodle shops and rain-slicked alleyways the ideal setting for a twisty story of gangsters and cops and beautiful women of unknowable loyalties: Aside from the director’s own back catalog, everything from Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to the films of Wong Kar-wai has borrowed at least a few such embellishments. But “The Wild Goose Lake” may just end up being the last word in Chinese crime noir, because it does not want (or need) to be anything else.

The Moment It All Went Wrong is recounted in flashback by Zhou Zenong (Chinese TV star Hu Ge), to the mysterious, beautiful Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei, also the star of “Black Coal, Thin Ice”). They meet in a rainy underpass —amid all the film’s below-the-line excellence, the rain machine guy deserves some sort of award — where Liu, who works as a “bathing beauty” (a fey euphemism for a prostitute who works on lakeside beaches) has come as a favor to her gang-affiliated boss, Huahua (Qi Dao), to deliver a message from Zhou’s wife. There’s a hefty dead-or-alive price on Zhou’s head, because in the fallout from the brawl (including an event billed as “the Olympics of theft”), one of his crew got spectacularly decapitated, and Zhou, fleeing for his own life, accidentally shot and killed a cop. This brings police captain Liu (Liao Fan, another star of “Black Coal, Thin Ice”) and his plainclothes squad into the chase for Zhou, too.

Popular on Variety

Zhou, as stoic as a stock Robert Mitchum character and just as fatalistically resigned to things not ending well, just wants to ensure the reward goes to his wife if he does get caught or killed. And so he goes to ground in the notoriously crime-ridden environs of the eponymous lake, while trying to make contact with her. But his gang boss does not like the loss of face and control, while Liu Aiai wants out of her dismal life and maybe sees the reward as a means to that end. Populated with interchangeable gangsters and cops — each adhering to arcane hierarchies and double-crossing the other — and marred by an unnecessary rape scene, the plot is overcrowded, convoluted and really not the point.

Instead, this is a film that lives in its vibrant craft and fluid reimagining of scenarios that should be stale clichés by now. Reteaming with cinematographer Dong Jinsong, Diao shows an extraordinarily elastic mastery of form. He can scale his inventiveness down to the intimate, as in a boat-set sex scene that includes Liu daintily spitting a mouthful of semen over the side. And he can scale it up to the massive, with exciting motorcycle chases; a witty wide shot of cops searching a semi-demolished building, its gutted interior open to view like a doll’s house; and an incongruously beautiful hillside showdown, in which we can only make out the glint of guns and the stinging white of LED-soled trainers.

Elsewhere, Dong soaks whole sequences in neon pinks and garish reflected blues, which throb with particular sleaze under B6’s clanging, dramatic score, accented with some offbeat soundtrack choices — an impromptu outdoor line dance happens to the strains of of Boney M’s “Rasputin,” for example. There’s room, too, for semi-surreal interludes, like a wander through a zoo, again under cover of night, where elephants blink in alarm at the intrusion and a tiger gazes impassively at a murder. At one point Zhou, who takes quite a few beatings and bullets over the film’s runtime, pioneers a self-bandaging technique that makes him look like a Cirque du Soleil aerial artist, wrapping himself in gauze rather than silk. At another, the ubiquitous transparent umbrella is gorily reinvented as a peculiarly cinematic lethal weapon.

All this happens under Zhang Yang’s sound design, so precise that it often conveys narrative all by itself. An aural bridge of a motorbike’s distinctive drone, a sort of sonic fingerprint, lets us know Zhou is about to make a fateful encounter with Liu. Elsewhere, the sound withholds: In what seems a direct reference to the airstrip scene in “North by Northwest,” a train passing overhead renders Liu’s murmured plan of action inaudible, placing the audience even further on the back foot.

Though the seamy locales give an almost palpable sense of life on the margins of solvency, legality and morality in modern China, it would be overstating to claim any great thematic weight here, and this will perhaps disappoint fans of Diao’s earlier, stranger, more hybrid work. In the moment, however, it is exhilarating to witness this symphonic choreography that seems less like it was mapped onto its locations, and more like it came from within. It may refer inescapably to genre classics from elsewhere, but “The Wild Goose Lake” is like an organic feature of the Chinese cinematic landscape, as though it pooled onto the screen in all its oily, murky glory, having welled up from deep inside the ground. Suddenly, China feels like the noirest place on Earth.

Film Review: 'The Wild Goose Lake'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2019.  Running time: 113 MIN. (Original title: "Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui")

Production: (China-France) A He Li Chen Guang International Culture Media Co., Green Ray Films production in co-production with Memento Films, Arte France in association with Omnijoi Media Corporation, Tencent Pictures, Maisong Entertainment Investment. (International sales: Memento, Paris). Producers: Li Li, Shen Yang. Co-producer: Alexandre Mallet-Guy.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Diao Yinan. Camera (color, widescreen): Dong Jinsong. Editors: Kong Jinlei, Matthieu Laclau. Music: B6.

With: Hu Ge, Gwei Lun Mei Liao Fan, Wan Qian, Qi Dao, Huang Jue, Zeng Meihuizi, Zhang Yicong, Chen Yongzhong. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Dan Scanlon (L) and US producer

    Berlin: Director Dan Scanlon Discusses Pixar’s 'Onward,' and His Michigan Inspiration

    Pixar’s “Onward” saw its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the film’s director, Dan Scanlon, and producer, Kori Rae, talked to the press at the festival about the film, which follows brother elves on a magical quest to reconnect with their late father. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voice the brothers who [...]

  • Johnny Depp arrives for the 'Minamata'

    Johnny Depp on 'Power of the Small' at Launch of 'Minamata' at Berlin Film Festival

    Johnny Depp arrived at the Berlin Film Festival Friday to support the film “Minamata,” in which he plays celebrated war photographer W. Eugene Smith. In the film, based on real events, Smith is pitted against a powerful corporation responsible for poisoning with mercury the people of Minamata in Japan in 1971. Directed by Andrew Levitas, [...]

  • "Last Film Show"

    Berlin: Orange Studio Launches 'The Last Film Show,' 'Old Fashioned, 'Love Song For Tough Guys' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Under the new leadership of industry veteran Kristina Zimmermann, Orange Studio, the film/TV division of the French telco group Orange, is launching three new projects at Berlin’s European Film Market: “Last Film Show,” “Old Fashioned” and “Love Song for Tough Guys.” Directed by Pan Nalin (“Samsara”), “Last Film Show” follows Samay, a 9-year-old boy living [...]

  • Bootlegger

    Best Friend Forever Acquires Cannes' Cinefondation Prizewinning 'Bootlegger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Brussels-based company Best Friend Forever has acquired international sales rights to Caroline Monnet’s feature debut “Bootlegger” which won best screenplay at Cannes’ Cinefondation in 2017. A well-known contemporary artist, Monnet has shed light on Indigenous identity and has debunked stereotypes through her works, which have been shown at the Whitney Biennial in New York, Palais [...]

  • Greed

    'Greed': Film Review

    I’ve got this friend who makes his own clothes. Not the generic kind cut from dowdy prairie-dress patterns, but chic, design-it-yourself garments that look better than most anything you’d find on a ready-to-wear rack. I figure he’s the only person I know who’s not guilty of contributing to the kind of sweatshop misery writer-director Michael [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content