Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s still winter, this week we’re looking back on films set in very cold places.
A penchant for deadpan black humor and minimalist ingenuity defines the best of mainland Chinese noir, a newish subgenre that couldn’t be more different from the famously operatic crime films of Hong Kong. A perfect example is the grotesquely neon-lit salon shoot-out near the beginning of Diao Yinan’s nearly arctic Black Coal, Thin Ice. Presented mostly in a single static master shot, it may be one of the most realistic gunfights in moviedom: awkward, abrupt, traumatic. When it ends, four bodies lie in a heap on the patchy linoleum floor, with only local police detective Zhang (Liao Fan) left standing. The film jumps forward five years into a breathtakingly bleak, subfreezing midwinter: Zhang is now a drunk who ekes out a living as a security guard at a coal factory, haunted by the shoot-out. Nothing screams “cheap writing” like an alcoholic cop with a past, but Black Coal’s prologue is terse and fatalistic, like all great existentialist pulp fiction.
A chance encounter with Zhang’s old partner sets the plot into motion. He shows the ex-cop photos of a grisly murder like the one that led him to the salon. Back then, it was a body found in pieces mixed with the coal on a conveyor belt. He remembers the victim’s widow, Wu Zizhen (Gwei Lun-mei), a dry cleaner. The latest victims seem to have some relationship to her, too. So Zhang starts an investigation of his own, drawn to the woman who may or may not be a black widow killer. It’s a classic noir conflation of desire and death with a dash of James M. Cain thrown in. But in place of old black-and-white noir’s shadows and smoke, there’s ice and breath vapor; the film looks cold enough to make you want to reach for a blanket. Diao paints light on the dirty snow and frosted glass, the result at times strikingly, starkly beautiful: the sick greenish-yellow of the lights at a nighttime ice rink, the reds and purples of neon signage. Noir was never supposed to be a big-budget genre; it works with what it can get. In snow-coated apartment blocks and industrial landscapes, Black Coal, Thin Ice finds a deep, deadly chill.
Availability: Black Coal, Thin Ice is available to stream on Netflix, and is available to rent or purchase digitally through the major providers. The Blu-ray or DVD can also be obtained through Amazon, Netflix, or your local video store/library.