Film review: Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) directed by Dao Yinan

Similar to my earlier review of the fascinating, if deeply depressing An Elephant Sitting Still, this is another Chinese film I saw recently that was set in a cold, miserable industrial environment. (Yikes, what is wrong with me?) This one is ostensibly a crime thriller, though a rather odd and uneven entry to the genre.

The reason I want to discuss this film is because I recently finished Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a monumental work of Soviet-era political satire, and I’ve begun musing about the following puzzle: What strategies can an artist employ to indirectly critique their society/government without getting in trouble? I reckon this film is a good example of one approach.

At face value, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a neo-noir film about an alcoholic ex-cop haunted by a grisly murder case. It draws on the same dark, snowy language as Nordic crime thrillers, but unlike that particular sub-genre — which I never thought had much interesting to say, being set in (so-called) social democratic Scandinavian utopias and all that — Black Coal, Thin Ice oozes with social realism, drawing on thorny issues in contemporary Chinese society. Yet as far as I can tell, this film managed a wide release domestically and was fairly successful at the Chinese box office without drawing any ire from authorities.

It does this by using genre as a cloak. There’s a femme fatale, an underworld of vice, a suspected serial killer, and a bit of dismemberment here and there. All that clichéd good stuff. Yet it’s surprisingly easy to peer beneath its surface veneer and see a more cynical commentary. The film is set in the Heilongjiang province in far northeastern China and depicts it as a deeply unpleasant, polluted place. It’s lonely, the people are untrustworthy, and the economic opportunities are limited. The film, by drawing on the disgraced ex-cop trope, critiques the local police force as under-equipped and unprofessional.

Most interestingly, it’s a bit of a proto-Chinese #MeToo film, predating the movement in China (which is chronically quashed by state censors) by a few years. A major revelation is that the mysterious ‘femme fatale’ female character is, in fact, a victim of extreme, prolonged, and utterly arbitrary sexual abuse. An employee at a laundry business, she was forced into a sexual relationship by the owner of a jacket she had damaged. Near the end of the film, she confesses to murdering him in order to stop the horrific abuse. But this is not a world where ‘battered women’ can live in peace. The police arrest her and (in a bizarre depiction of Chinese police procedures) force her to reenact the murder at the crime scene while filming her on a camcorder. The crushing cruelty, domination and humiliation inflicted on the women by powerful men of all stripes is established as the ‘final truth’ of the film’s narrative.

This is by no means a perfect film. It’s clankily paced and its direction is not always cogent — at times, it feels like a few key scenes were accidentally left out in the editing process. But it’s a film that stirs contemplation well after it has concluded. Not sure if I’d ever like to visit Heilongjiang after viewing this film, although I hear it has excellent Manchu cuisine.

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