The only thing slicker than the ice that coats the ground in Diao Yi’nan’s ‘Black Coal’ is the heavy aestheticism that has dominated the neo-noir genre of late. Ablaze with colored lights in nearly every frame, Diao’s northern Chinese detective puzzler holds on to the stylish tendencies of American counterparts like Drive, but grounds them in a world that feels ultimately more livable.
A slow-speed chase through dark alleyways, the film’s plot is concerned with a series of dismembered bodies being deposited at coal plants throughout the region. Diao (who also scripted the film) sprinkles in bits of absurdism that contribute to the mysterious atmosphere.
Interesting performances from the two leads subvert the usual noir archetypes in refreshing ways. Gwei Lun-Mei is enthralling as a femme non-fatale: alluring but cold, secretive but co-operative with law enforcement, and too meek to ever come across as an overt threat to her conquests. Though Fan Liao plays the typical alcoholic detective with a past full of regrets, he also functions as the film’s beacon of comedy. He mugs around, dances, throws himself at women, and constantly loses his footing on the frozen ground.
Just when it seems the whole mystery has been unraveled, ‘Black Coal’ insists on coiling itself back up. Still, it is unarguably fresh in the context of both noir and Chinese cinema. Even though it has to take a more literal approach in order to end in fireworks, something had to light the fuse.
The Young Critics Workshop is organized in cooperation with Photogénie.