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Title: Black Coal, Thin Ice

Movie: :3stars:
Video: :4.5stars:
Audio: :4.5stars:
Extras: :halfstar:

HTS Overall Score:76

I usually don’t associate the term “neo noir” with Chinese cinema. In fact most of the time my brain automatically shifts to David Finger or something like Raymond Chandler in the Criterion collection. Associating that genre with “Black Coal, Thin Ice” was a bit of a culture shock, especially when I was expecting your standard run of the mill detective thriller. Director Yi'nan Diao neon drenched, and bleakly convoluted thriller hit the Berlin Film Festival and was greeted with mixed reactions, I knew I had to see it for myself. “Black Coal, Thin Ice” skates the line between utterly fantastic and convoluted self-applause, which creates a unique film experience that makes me wonder if I truly love the film, or am just deluding myself (something that a dark neo noir film should make everyone do after viewing the first time).

In the year 1999 coal factories all over northern China were having body parts show up in their deliveries for the day. Tasked with the case, recently divorced detective Zhang (Liao Fan) tries to hunt down the killer. Thinking they’ve found the killer’s remains, the case is nearly closed, only to have Zhang lose his police officer position during a tragic shooting by the perp’s younger brother. Fast forward to 2004 and Zhang is a loser with no hope in sight. He’s stuck working a security gig while he drinks himself to death in an effort to assuage the pain. This little pity party comes to an end when another set of murders crop up around the area, mimicking the original death in 1999, except this time the body parts all have an ice skate attached to them.

Realizing that there is more to the widow of the original dead perp from 1999 than they thought, Zhang becomes obsessed with his theorized femme fatale (played by Gwei Lun-Mei), stalking her daily in his own clumsy way. Realizing that she’s being followed, the widow confronts him and soon the two form a strange semi romantic, semi creepy symbiotic relationship. She has some secrets, that is for dead certain, but whether she is the evil femme fatale that he originally thought, or whether there is someone else in the shadows is for the viewer to find out for themselves.

I felt elements reminiscent of Raymond Chandler throughout the film, as there are really no heroes and villains in the story. Rather there are just characters that do things and while some may characteristics of a hero, or of a villain, it’s just a syrupy blend of moral compromise. Zhang is a disgraced cop, but he still has that desire to see justice done. However, his methods leave a lot to be desired if you’re looking for the quintessential heroic cop, muddling crime scenes, becoming emotionally and lustfully involved with his suspect and willing to cross more than a few lines to get his perp. The widow is a bit more enigmatic, and she carries more than her fair share of share of villainous aspects. But just like all femme fatales, she has some form of justification to her actions, no matter the consequences.

Yi'nan Diao does an incredible job with the mood and texture of the film. A neo noir thriller is NOTHING without the inclusion of esoteric music and a gloomy mood that makes you feel as if you’re in Transylvania. The lighting is slathered in neon glow, with pitch black settings that transport you to a city that seems nothing like reality. The daytime shots differ WILDLY, giving crisp and lifelike images that act as the perfect foils to the snowy and dark backdrops of the gloomier scenes. You can almost watch the movie without dialogue, as the texture and pacing of the visuals tells at least 70% of the story.

The only real major ISSUES I had with the film were that the story acted like a snake eating itself. That is it tried so hard to be convoluted and full of double blinds that you have a hard time NOT being confused at times. That results in a film that grinds and grinds and grinds, yet seemingly has little to show for it. The final 20 minutes are pure brilliance, but the 1 hour of seeming confusion rob some of the impact of the that finale.


Not Rated by the MPAA

Video :4.5stars:
To say that that the camera work and resulting Blu-ray encode for “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is nothing short of mesmerizing is an understatement. Expertly shot, the film showcases a film drenched in neon glow colors, from the reds, greens and yellows of the lights, down to the drab and sometimes depressingly bland clothing that the people in the film wear. Blacks are tantamount to the film’s success here, with inky night shots that give off plenty of fine shadow detail and only show a little digital noise here and there. Daytime shots are INCREDIBLE, with photo realistic colors of blue and white snow, or the overtly sunny day at the very end of the film. Facial detail is spot on perfect, with only a hint of shiny softness here and there, and the encode itself seems to be free from any major artifacts (besides the mild noise mentioned in some of the darker moments).

Audio :4.5stars:
The film’s Mandarin 5.1 DTS-HD track does an amazing job at keeping up with the stellar video work. There is a lot of dialogue to the film, and one would expect a very front heavy track, but the mix is very robust, with tons of auditory queues and ambiance to fill out the back surrounds. The LFE and the surrounds also get a near constant barrage of musical notes from the rather electronic and haunting score. Without a bizarre and almost retro sound, the score manages to keep the listener on the edge of their seat wondering what will happen next, or fill them with a sense of impending dread. Vocals are crisp and clear, never drowned out by the constant score, and the LFE stays tight and punch when needed.

Extras :halfstar:

• Previews

Overall: :4stars:

I hesitate to unilaterally praise “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, as I found much of the confusion and convoluted plot points unnecessary. However, the fantastic cinematography by Dong Jinsong is mesmerizing and the Raymond Chandler, David Fincher parallels make for a compelling and bleak neo noir thriller, despite those flaws. The average movie goer may be a bit put off by the grinding grinding pace, but fans of film noir very well may get a lot more enjoyment (as did I). Audio and video are stunning, but the lack of extras for a film like this felt a bit disappointing. A full length commentary alone would have been the perfect pairing for the film Rental.

Additional Information:

Starring: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, Jingchun Wang
Directed by: Yi'nan Diao
Written by: Yi'nan Diao
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 AVC
Audio: Mandarin: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Mandarin DD 2.0
Studio: Well Go USA
Rated: NR
Runtime: 105 minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: September 29th, 2015

Buy Black Coal, Thin Ice On Blu-ray at Amazon

Recommendation: Rental

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