Black Coal, Thin Ice is a Chinese film noir. The noir is mostly in the surroundings: the frozen ground, the sickly streetlights, run-down shops, derelict housing. People in this Northern city are cold, red-nosed, folded back on themselves. The landscape is bleak, covered in dirty snow and hard-baked ice. On slightly warmer days, there is thawed mud and the swarm-like soot of the coal-fueled power plants hovering in the grey sky. This is not a happy place.
If the noir is the backdrop, then by contrast, the people might seem less mean, right? Of course this is a ploy to make us care about them a little more. But hang on – someone very twisted is dismembering men and throwing the limbs onto lorries that bring the black coal to the power plants. Two police officers and a few unlikely suspects lose their lives. Black Coal feels like the Dardenne brothers lost a bet and had to go film a James Ellroy screenplay in the Chinese province of their choice.
Soon enough, another suspect drifts into focus, but he dies fleeing from the cops, taking every chance of finding out motive with him. The cops realize that the dead men were the husband and subsequent boyfriends of a woman who is working at a dry-cleaner’s. She is petite, brittle, fragile. There is no way she could have dismembered those guys, is there?
The guy who tries to figure out things is no longer a cop, but a security man, divorced, awkward with women, and a drunk. His motorcycle is stolen in front of his eyes. People eat, drink, dance and fuck in cheerless, soulless places. They steal from one another, they shout, kick and stumble from one day towards the next. There is always noise: the rumbling streetcar, car alarms, fighting neighbors, washing machines, conveyor belts, trucks, brothels with hysterical customers, and a creaky, untrustworthy merry-go-round. Footsteps. Gunshots.
And in the middle of this, there is that beautiful scene at the ice-rink that involves wonderful magic and subtle courtship. The final scene features daylight fireworks, which is one of the most fitting endings I’ve seen in a long time. Daylight fireworks is also the apt original title for the movie. Black Coal, Thin Ice doesn’t tell you an easy story, but there is a kind of stubborn hope in there, and the film knows where it wants to go underneath its rough-hewn surface.