Monday, April 27, 2015

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

A scene from Diao Yinan's BLACK COAL THIN ICE, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
WHO: Liao Fan (last seen in Jackie Chan's dreadful CZ12) won the Best Actor prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival for his role in this. (He's the one lighting up in the above photo.)

WHAT: It's interesting to contrast this somber procedural, the third feature by Beijing-based filmmaker Diao Yinan, against an earlier wave of Chinese-language crime movies that came up in the post-film presentation with Film Workshop's Nansun Shi after her and her husband Tsui Hark's Taking of Tiger Mountain at the festival yesterday. In the late-eighties Hong Kong thrillers directed by the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam, Hollywood stylistic influences are worn loudly and brightly (and taken to sometimes absurd levels), while cops exude a kind of glamorous cool even as they commit objectively despicable acts. It's elements like this that I feel may give some credence to James Naremore's suggestion that the North American vogue for Hong Kong action in the 1990s was "indulging in fin de siècle Orientalism," although I personally feel there was a lot more to it than that- a topic for another discussion at another time.

It may be overly-obvious to state that a film like Black Coal, Thin Ice feels far more attuned to international arthouse than pop cinema, both formally and thematically (although these inseparable realms in fact reinforce each other). There's far more ambiguity in this moral universe, and Liao's role as Zhang is that of a real neo-noir protagonist; one that appears more pathetic than glamorous. When we first meet him, he's at a train station seeing off his former wife, and can't help but try to force himself on her one last time before she leaves his life for good. It's like the opposite of a "save the cat" gesture intended to make audiences like an on-screen character better. For the rest of the film, we hang on the open question of whether we're going to find anything redeeming about this authority figure, as much or more than we wonder what the solution to the gruesome mystery at the center of the plot: who is chopping up human bodies and disposing of their pieces in a coal plant.

It's a grim film, but a highly compelling one, set in eye-opening industrial urban landscapes and punctuated by impactful moments contrasting with the rest of the methodical, clinical tone, such as sudden burst of violent action in the midst of a wrong turn in the investigation, or an almost tender close up on Zhang and a female character, chillingly coming right after the most overt visual reference to Carol Reed's The Third Man in the film, of the several noted by John Berra. Though Black Coal, Thin Ice isn't quite up to the standards of that landmark of British and indeed international cinema, it's a worthwhile genre piece that will be giving scholars much to pick over as it's discussed in the context of a rapidly-transforming nation in the coming years.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 6PM today at the Clay, and 9:15 PM Wednesday at the Kabuki as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: If you've been seeing just one SFIFF film per day following my daily picks, you haven't seen anything made outside of the United States of America yet. And this is supposed to be an international film festival? I haven't crunched numbers yet, but I do get the sense that U.S. (mostly independent and underground, not Hollywood, of course) films are taking a more generous share of the attention at the festival this year, and I'm sorry to perpetuate that. My excuse: wanting to write about films I've seen rather than those I haven't each day; I'll be able to weigh in on more foreign titles as the festival rolls on. Anyway, I'm glad to finally get the ball rolling with a film from China, which has five titles listed in the SFIFF's "country index" in the back of its catalog. Others include The Taking of Tiger Mountain (mentioned above and playing again on Thursday), Peter Ho-sun Chan's Dearest (also screening Thursday), an American-made no-budget documentary on the Chinese rail system called The Iron Ministry (screening again May 4). There are two more chances to see Red Amnesia, another thriller that seems a productive pairing with Black Coal, Thin Ice as it was made by a director (Wang Xiaoshuai) just three years older than Diao; their two films even share the same editor, Yang Hongyu!

HOW: DCP presentation.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today is the final festival screening of the German film Stations of the Cross and of Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live! with director Jody Shapiro, not to mention its titular cinema-royalty star, in attendance.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Roxie Cinema is screening a week-long engagement of the (human) injury-plagued 1981 cult classic Roar. Tonight it screens at the "Big Roxie" (as opposed to the smaller-screened "Little Roxie" two doors down) at 9:15.

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