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''Black Coal, Thin Ice'' is a sinister neo-noir movie by renowned Chinese actor, director and screenwriter Diao Yinan. The film is a mixture of a slow-paced thriller and a depressing drama. The movie received wide critical acclaim and won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival among others.
Sadly, this movie is a good example for the fact that critically acclaimed movies rarely appeal to wider audiences. Things start promisingly in the beginning when body parts are found in different coal factories in the People's Republic of China in 1999. The locations look empty, grey and polluted and show unusually cold-hearted, contemporary and realistic facets of the country. Just about fifteen minutes into the movie, a very weird scene occurs. The cops want to interview a first suspect and the whole event escalates for no apparent reason. The suspect and some of his friends die as well as several cops. We soon get to know that the suspects didn't seem to have anything to do with the murder and the question is why they would immediately panic when they saw the police and try to kill everyone around them. The whole scene was intense and had a shocking effect but it felt exaggerated and almost surreal. The promisingly slow start felt disharmonically interrupted and botched.
This opening massacre is not the only time characters are acting in abnormally weird ways in this movie. The movie surely includes a lot of symbolism and metaphors and tries to portray loneliness and rejection in a directionless and industrialized society but some scenes are out of place and so surreal that they somehow contradict the dark realism of the plot. While the movie has several interesting experimental ideas, other parts are unnecessarily long-winded and the plot itself is not surprising enough to carry over almost two hours. The film feels as if Charles Bukowski met David Lynch in an industrial ghost town to elaborate a script that is missing that certain something. The plot itself is not complex enough to make this a good thriller. The characters are not profound enough to make this an intense drama. The story is not surreal enough to make this an uneasy mystery movie. This film includes elements of all these genres but not enough of everything to fully convince and sometimes feels directionless. What could have been a revolutionary mixture of genres feels headless at certain moments.
The initially interesting characters and solid acting also fail to develop further as the movie goes on. Five years after the first crime and its ensuing massacre, other dismembered body parts are found that all seem to lead to the mysterious widow of the first victim. The two desperate, disgraced and lonesome cops who survived the opening massacre try to find the real murderer behind these gruesome crimes. One has become a drunken security guard who desperately wants to solve the murder case that destroyed his life. He first investigates and stalks the mysterious and quiet widow before he begins a romantic relationship with her. This relationship between two solitary souls could have been an amazing idea. The concept isn't new but movies such as ''Sea of Love'' or ''Basic Instinct'' have shown what you can make with such a plot. Sadly, the two main characters don't connect on any level. Even their common loneliness is lived in different facets and it's challenging if not impossible to feel empathy for any of them. I found that the conclusion of this initially promising relationship felt disjunct. Maybe it was the director's intension to let his sinister piece of art end in a heartless way but it felt too neutral to be either heartless or emotional. Once again, a middle way was chosen that feels somewhat botched.
The closing scenes with the drunk security guard dancing with himself to a horrid pop song and some teenagers starting fireworks at daytime feel extremely pretentious. I'm aware of the fact that the director wanted to show the cop's deliverance from his demons and the start of a new life for him in the former scene and the mixture of mysterious fantasy and depressing realism as guide line through the movie in the latter scene but these parts felt once again forced, out of context and under-developed. The director tried too hard to show how creative he is and that's why these closing scenes are plain unsatisfying. Fans of the movie will probably believe that some viewers didn't get all the allusions but that isn't the problem. The director wanted to achieve too many things at the same time and failed in a nearly arrogant way.
The only positive elements that remain are the thoroughly sinister atmosphere created by grey settings, probably intentionally paralyzed acting skills, chillingly calm camera techniques, a fitting soundtrack and a few good acting parts. Despite a handful of potentially creative, philosophical and even revolutionary ideas from the filmmaker, this movies falls flat because of its own directionless, over-ambitioned and slow-paced pretentiousness. Fans of art-house cinema and philosophical neo-noir movies can give this a try. Those who are looking for a profound drama or engaging thriller should look elsewhere.
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