Thursday, October 16, 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice (orig. Bai ri yan huo) [2014]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (1 Star)

IMDb listing
AsianWiki listing

CameraObscura (T. Grégoire) review* (F. Schmidke) review* (J. Kurz) review*
Variety (S. Foundas) review

Black Coal, Thin Ice (orig. Bai ri yan huo) [2014] [IMDb] [AW] (written and directed by Diao Yinan [IMDb] [AW]) is a Chinese "Noir" film that has been making the rounds (and winning awards) in the Festival Circuit and played recently here at the 2014 (50th Annual) Chicago International Film Festival.

The story involves a hard-nosed police detective Zhang Zili (played by Liao Fan [IMDb] [AW]) from an industrial town somewhere in northern China.  One day, in nominally 1999, workers at various plants across the Province are shocked to find human body parts amidst the coal being delivered to them on that day.  Officials soon find that the body parts all belong to a single person, identified by means of an ID found in the pocket of a piece of clothing still clinging to one of the body parts found.  It's of a random worker, again working in one of the factories, in the Province. 

The worker's wife, Wu Zhizhen (played by Gwei Lun-Mei [IMDb] [AW]), a lowly worker in a laundry in one of the Provincial towns is informed of her husband's gruesome death.  But who could have done it?  Police, including Zhang Zili, assume that the murder was the result of some sort of an extortion attempt on the part of the local mob.  But when they the police try to arrest "the usual suspects," a shootout ensues resulting in not only the "suspects" being killed but also a number of police officers attempting the arrest, including one of Zhang's best friends.

Fast forward to 2006.  Blaming himself for the deaths of his colleagues and best friend, Zhang's long since left the police department and become a notorious drunk in town.  However, he comes to hear from a former colleague from the force that there have been two other murders over the past several years, including a recent one, which strangely enough, seem to have been romantically linked to lowly laundress Wu Zhizhen.  What's going on?  Is she some sort of a "black widow" / "femme fatale"?  Of course it's complicated.  Much ensues ...

I generally liked the film, though I do have to say that I DID NOT LIKE the film's principal protagonist Zhang Zili.  I realize that the film was trying to portray him as a "tough guy."  And I do realize that Humphrey Bogart's "Sam Spade" was not exactly "PC" (I remember a film in which Humphrey Bogart's character did not call Lauren Bacall's character BY HER NAME throughout the entire film ... instead calling her "Honey" and "Peaches" and so forth).   However in the current film, Zhang appears to sexually assault at least two women, including the lowly if perhaps morally conflicted Wu Zhizhen.  I just couldn't get past that. 

I always enjoy the application of the "Film Noir" formula to different contexts, but I certainly do believe that the "tough guy detective" need not sexually assault the women in the story to prove his "toughness" no matter what cultural context the film comes from.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser.

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