When body parts are found in coal processing plants around the Chinese countryside, officer Zhang Zili’s investigation is cut short by a shooting. Five years later, now working as a security guard, Zhang finds his curiosity rekindled when more bodies appear scattered around the country. After forging a relationship with a sullen and timid laundry worker, Zhang finds new clues in unexpected places. As the story unfolds, the characters hidden intentions become apparent, and their secrecy has deadly consequences.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is a detective movie that, like the title implies, is dark and cold. Typical of film noir, there is little joy found within its two hours. Surrounding the dismembered bodies and the search for the killer is snow, the kind of snow that crunches loudly with each footstep, that is too cold for snowball fights or snow forts. The icy cold permeates the film, with Zhang constantly rubbing his hands, characters’ words muffled by scarves, and frequent ice skating trips to the frozen pond.
This is a strong film. With a fantastic lead performance by Liao Fan (he won the Silver Bear for acting at the Berlin International Film Festival – the other BIFF) and strong supporting characters, you may not necessarily find yourself rooting for any particular outcome, but the film keeps your attention. The result of Zhang’s investigation, while not a mindblowing twist, did manage to catch me off guard.
The combination of dour characters, chilly scenery and slow pace make Black Coal, Thin Ice a bit longer than necessary. The portion of the film that takes place in 1999 seems disjointed, the scene with Zhang and his wife being particularly forced. The film takes frequent breaks in the story to simply show viewers how cold it is. In one scene, Zhang tiptoes behind the main suspect undetected, despite the very noticeable sound of snow underfoot. In addition, the relationship between Zhang and the laundress is awkward and improbable.
As a whodunit crime drama, Black Coal, Thin Ice is not in the same league as The Usual Suspects or Alfred Hitchcock, but it holds its own. The strengths of the actors as well as the forbidding atmosphere of the film give the audience something to sink their teeth in, and the story is capably told by director Diao Yinan. The imperfections are not necessarily small, but they are forgivable and pass quickly. For risk-averse moviegoers concerned about sitting through a dud, Black Coal, Thin Ice is certainly not that. At the same time, I am certain that you’ll have the chance to see better.