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London Film Festival Review: Black Coal, Thin Ice

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Chinese director Yi'nan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice is a strangely opaque and more than a little tiresome crime story and would-be thriller. It contains long, grim, protracted scenes, frequently with unfathomable narrative purpose, and also flashes of brutal violence. The type of grisly and disturbing viciousness on display here used to be called ‘Asia-extreme’ but such a label would feel racist by omission since these days multiplex American fodder features graphic scenes of heads being caved in and limbs being blown off, so why should we single it out for being ‘Asian’?

To be fair, this is less extreme than some other violent content from that part of the world, but it still contains scenes that may be better watched through your fingers. A particularly grisly opening features severed limbs being found in a coal-treatment plant. What follows is a convoluted, involved and sprawling whodunit, with a dash of social commentary thrown in. Some scenes are moderately intriguing (including an extended sequence set around an ice skating rink) whereas others just make you check your watch (such as an extended sequence involve sex on a Ferris wheel). Everything’s quite extended, good and bad.

The plot is difficult to summarise, but it concerns two detectives who were brought low from a curious previous case that flummoxed them and their community. Now, the appearance of limbs at the aforementioned plant catches their attention and they are drawn into a dark and cruel world, one that offers many horrors: social, economical and criminal.  

As well as dabbling in melodrama, extreme gore and social realism, Black Coal, Thin Ice also has film noir aspirations and offers a questionable femme fatale in the form of Gwei Lun Mei. Her sensitive performance is both a blessing and a curse; she provides a spark to the plot’s emotional intensity (and clues to the murder mystery’s conclusion) but also helps perpetuate the feeling of slowness. She does everything very slowly. She even blinks slowly and sighs slowly and walks slowly.

As a whole, this feels like a fairly inaccessible package. Just to be clear, I would make this complaint even if it was in English and set in Dagenham. Its cultural and language differences are not the problem here. The problem comes down to the teasing out of the story and its apparent allergy to suspense and pacing.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), directed by Yi'nan Diao, is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival this Autumn. To book tickets go to Watch the trailer below:


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