Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Severed body parts are found in coal stacks within a hundred mile radius. Two cops, Zhang (Liao Fan) Wang (Yu Ailei), are assigned on the case but no suspect is apprehended. Beautiful about “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” written and directed by Diao Yinan, is that although it is presented as a mystery-thriller, it proves to be atypical: there is one extended chase scene in the streets and among close living spaces, no one is taken to the police station to be interviewed by good cop and bad cop, not a whiff of sentencing or the sight of a judge. It is all so muted—so much so that in the middle of it one is forced to wonder what the story is actually about.

I think it is a story of a man undergoing a resurrection. The aforementioned case was not solved in 1999. Five years later, we discover that Zhang is a drunk and no longer a cop. He found a job as a member of a security team, but it is apparent he doesn’t care about it. Zhang simply sort of… floats around. That is, until he crosses paths with his ex-partner, Wang, now a detective and working on a case that is highly likely related to the mystery involving the dismemberment. In the middle of the many moving parts is a woman they’d met before but never had a chance to interview because she was supposedly so devastated by the news of her husband’s death that she was inconsolable at the time: Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-mei) who remains to work in the same dry cleaners. Zhang pretends to be a customer. Soon he is following Zhizhen wherever she goes.

An aimless man happening upon an obsession is not new. But fresh is the level of difficulty in trying to figure out Zhang’s methods. We see him in action, but his angle remains opaque for the most part. Is he on the case to garner some sort of redemption? Does he even care? Or is his central motivation simply to sleep with the suspect? Is he falling in love with her? This is possible considering that in 1999, his wife divorced him. The loss of his wife compounded by a lack of resolution involving an important case led to his shutting down.

I enjoyed that it can be all of the above depending on the time and circumstances. There is a shocking event that occurs in the middle of the film that I believe helped to solidify his resolve. Although Zhang is like a shriveled leaf dancing in the wind, he is not unfeeling. In fact, a case can be made he feels too much. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be drowning himself in alcohol to the point of stupor. When his authentic self is revealed late in the film, it is almost like an exhalation. We see what his ex-wife saw and what Zhizhen sees in him. Here is a man so easily consumed by an idea; it is his strength as an investigator and his weakness as a man.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” offers duality. Two cops, two destinies. Two souls—Zhang and Zhizhen—whose lives changed in 1999 and became empty shells by 2004. What can be seen in light and what is revealed only in darkness. What is said and what is implied. Peace while in shackles. Offering stunning cinematography throughout, particularly shots of movement—ice skating, dancing, following someone from a couple of yards away—I wished that the work were better paced. Although our protagonist remains curious right up to his final decision, the manner in which the plot is resolved feels like a marathon to the finish line.

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