When genre conventions are punctuated by other considerations, Black Coal, Thin Ice slowly drifts away (in a good way) from the expected.

The plot of Black Coal, Thin Ice (in Mandarin, and released in 2014) is the stuff of classic murder-mystery, and the opening stretch lays out this premise with clinical efficiency. The year is 1999. There’s some sort of cloth-wrapped package peeking out from the coal at the back of a truck. The shape of the package becomes clearer as the coal is dumped into a yard, scooped up and deposited on a conveyor belt, and before long, a helmeted employee is shouting to the line operator to shut the power off. As the belt comes to a stop, we see what the package contained: a severed hand.

Meanwhile, we have been cross-cutting to a man and a woman. While all this soundless action has been happening around the coal, these two have been playing cards, soundlessly. And just when the lifeless hand is discovered, we cut to the woman’s hands here. The couple is now making love and her fingers are twitching. The man, we learn, is a detective named Zhang Zili. He’s obtained a divorce from this woman, and this appears to be their last meeting.

Black Coal Thin Ice Diao Yinans Berlinale Golden Bear winner smuggles fascinating layers into a genre film

A still from Black Coal, Thin Ice

With the two cross-cut narratives, a thematic core has been established — though it’s probably evident only by the end. Even as Zhang investigates the mystery behind the limb, we are in a story about husbands who have withdrawn from their wives. But coming back to this scene, between Zhang and his divorced wife, what a curious way this is to spend time with a formerly loved one you are now separating from. The lovemaking, I understand. It’s the card-playing that feels odd. Of all the things you could do…

But then, these “odd” bits are a given with Diao Yinan. The filmmaker has made only four films since — and including his first one — Uniform (2003), but it’s been a rich career. Night Train (2007) and The Wild Goose Lake (2019) played at Cannes, and Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. All of them have solid “genre” premises, yet none of them is what you’d call a nail-biter.

In Uniform, a man pretends to be a cop when he stumbles upon a policeman’s attire. In Night Train, a female prison guard (and helper in executions) strikes up a relationship with a widower she may have a disturbing connection with. In The Wild Goose Lake, a hunted gangster and a sex worker are on the run. But beyond the genre thrills, there’s some sort of commentary happening, too. Otherwise, why have the scene in The Wild Goose Lake, for instance, where a man is gunned down by the police even after he surrenders?

In a Film Comment interview, Diao Yinan said, “I don’t just want to portray society in a sentimental prose style or as slices of life… Genre films can be made well, can be made seriously. Another way of saying it is that genre films can also express an attitude towards society, towards reality.” In other words, instead of expressing his views on society through a “social” drama, he’s opting to say what he wants to say through stories of crime. He added, “(The genre film) may be a touch cynical, but deep down it is very pure and serious.”

And so, when genre conventions are punctuated by these other considerations, the film slowly drifts away (in a good way) from the expected.

One of the most startling and strange – i.e., “odd” — scenes in Black Coal, Thin Ice occurs when two detectives interview the manager of an apartment complex. But suddenly, there’s a horse in the building. The manager is as stumped as we are. She asks, “Who brought a horse in here?” The reply: “It’s been wandering around the neighborhood. It looked cold and hungry, so the neighbors brought it in.”

The investigation continues after this brief interlude, but what a scene! Screenwriting schools would probably say it’s not needed. (Does the film work without the horse? It does, perfectly well.) But the horse says something. At least, it suggests something. Along with the central mystery (whose hand was found in the coal?), we now have a secondary one (whose horse is this?). And at the end, when we find out who the killer is, the revelation occurs in the middle of a street, and, out of nowhere, fireworks appear. Who? Why? It’s another mystery, another “odd” bit in the film.

And that’s where interviews help. I strongly believe that one should not read what a filmmaker has to say about his/her film before you watch it, because it wires you into his/her way of thinking, and sometimes you end up seeing the film that the director (through these interviews) brainwashes you into seeing. But afterwards, interviews can be very useful. The fireworks scene at the end of  Black Coal, Thin Ice still works for me without my “understanding” it. It’s such a surreal stretch that you gape at it like you’d gape at, say, the Northern Lights.

Black Coal Thin Ice Diao Yinans Berlinale Golden Bear winner smuggles fascinating layers into a genre film

A still from Black Coal, Thin Ice

But if you still want to know what it’s about, here’s a passage from an interview in timeoutshanghai.com: “The Chinese name for Black Coal, Thin Ice translates to ‘fireworks in daylight’. While the English title carries overt references to film noir (‘black’ coal and white ‘ice’), the Chinese title is more metaphorical. Fireworks in daylight provide a kind of emotional catharsis that people use to shield themselves from the harsher aspects of the world… The truth is that in every person’s inner world they might hide some unbearable memories, but most days they have to behave as if nothing has happened… In using this title I’m obviously suggesting that Chinese people today are in dire need of that kind of catharsis.”

Even the setting (the coal plant) is a statement. Diao Yinan told fourthreefilm.com that the majority of the Chinese market would rather use the scenery of a beautiful city. It is a bit unusual to focus on the industrial village and industrial sites. Only a few directors like Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing use such locations. “Perhaps it has something to do with the way they were all brought up… They were from those types of cities, small cities…. A person from an industrial background can also see the loneliness it creates.”

This is the thing that alienates some viewers from such films. They say: Why should I watch movies where I need a glossary (in the form of an interview) to “fully” get it? Why can’t I just watch a “simple” genre film, instead? Well, sure. I can’t answer for others, but at least for me, the appeal of a film like Black Coal, Thin Ice comes from the question: “What else can you do with a genre film?” Also, I suppose it helps if you don’t watch films to entirely understand them. I mean, it would be a bummer if I didn’t get the who-what-why of the murder mystery itself. But the “odd” bits like that horse, or those fireworks — these are just a part of cinema’s mystery.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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