Black Coal, Thin Ice – Review

Set in a contemporary northern industrial province of China, this award winning film is an entertaining and intriguing detective mystery. Our hero Zhang Zili played by Liao Fan starts the film as a police detective, but he is injured in a clumsy fire fight in which two of his colleagues are killed and is retired from the force on health grounds. Some years later as a recovering(?) alcoholic he sets about solving the mystery and avenging the grisly death of another close police colleague. It all makes for a dark and gritty drama, but there is much more to this film as the director Diao Yinan cites the Coen Brothers as one of his influences. I don’t think I’ve given away the ending and it is well worth the journey.

I loved a lot about this film. There are quite a few scenes that are introduced with an almost abstract image on which the camera dwells for a while before panning away to give it context and two of those scenes involve coal and ice. The key characters are beautifully developed as very real and flawed people, portrayed by skilled actors. And Diao Yinan uses a lot of comedy to add life and reality to the story, especially with the lead character Zhang. He has a number of scenes that border on slapstick, again relating to the constant presence of ice as the film scenes all seem to be set in the winter months. Towards the end, there is a police chase on foot that resembles the Keystone Cops (for me at least).

The film also echoes those gritty black and white detective dramas from the 1950s and 1960s, well before the complexities of crime scene investigators and high-tech surveillance systems, and I liked that too. The final scene is just wonderful.

Well done Diao Yinan! 4.5/5



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