The only thing slicker than the ice that coats the ground in Diao Yinan’s Black Coal is the heavy aestheticism that has dominated the neo-noir genre of late. Ablaze with colored lights in nearly every frame, Diao’s northern Chinese detective puzzler holds on to the stylish tendencies of American counterparts like Drive and Brick, but grounds them in a world that feels ultimately more livable.
A slow-speed chase through dark alleyways, the film’s plot is concerned with a series dismembered bodies being deposited at coal plants throughout the region. The murders stop for a while, but – after a particularly clever shot that uses an underground tunnel as a time machine to jump the narrative forward – they soon start up again. Diao (who also scripted the film) sprinkles in bits of absurdism that contribute to the mysterious atmosphere, from a horse in an office building to a scene in a blood-red bathroom that channels the spooky Lynchian surrealism of Twin Peaks.
Black Coal is a film of details. Scattered playing cards take up the bulk of the screen in a meticulously framed sex scene. The rattle of old fans and the hum of clothes dryers undercut the soundscape of every interior. Slabs of watermelon drip their sticky mess onto a map while the police studying it spit seeds over their shoulders. These minutiae offer up a personality behind the neon sheen, carrying the story through its many twists and turns.
The film isn’t without bravado, though. In the opening scene, coal tumbles out of a dump truck and the camera follows, first sliding sideways before giving way to full-on loop-de-loops. Tricks like this – and when a roaming point-of-view shot stops dead as the bike that was propelling it rides into frame – invite active participation in the world onscreen. As a result, setpieces like the Keystone Cops showdown in the salon come across all the more effectively.
Interesting performances from the two leads subvert the usual noir archetypes in refreshing ways. Gwei Lun-Mei is enthralling as a femme non-fatale: alluring but cold, secretive but co-operative with law enforcement, and too meek to ever come across as an overt threat to her conquests. Though Fan Liao plays the typical alcoholic detective with a past full of regrets, he also functions as the film’s beacon of comedy. He mugs around, dances, throws himself at women, and constantly loses his footing on the frozen ground.
Despite all the world building and effort to set a distinct tone, the film falters drastically in third act. Just when it seems the whole mystery has been unraveled, Black Coalinsists on coiling itself back up into superfluous knots, running too long in the process. While it’s certainly not enough to make the film unenjoyable, it does come dangerously close to sapping all the good will earned by earlier segments. Still, Black Coal is unarguably fresh in the context of both noir and Chinese cinema. Even though it has to take a more literal approach in order to end in fireworks, the first two-thirds of the film are enough to light the fuse.