The Watchers
by James Wham

NYFF 2019:
The Wild Goose Lake
Dir. Diao Yinan, China, Film Movement

On a rainy night in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, a group of Jiang Hu gangsters gather in an abandoned hotel parking garage. They squat patiently on the floor as an organizing member allocates out the city, each unit assigned its own hundred-foot strip of road. The initiates are treated to a master class in motor vehicle theft, taught to stifle an alarm, work as a team, and appraise the most valuable parts. Standing alone at the back of the room, menacingly chewing a sausage, is Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), a mob boss more acquainted with mopeds than Maybachs. Though only recently released from jail, Zhou is assigned the city’s most lucrative street, one teeming with motorbikes that make for easy lifting. This angers Cat’s Eye, one of two zebra-striped twins who revolt against the pecking order—puffing out their chests and posturing like maniacs in a fit of ritualized aggression. The whole scene is oddly camp, a menagerie of trope-informed masculinity, and it undermines any real threat that might arise among the razorblades and rusty guns. With tempers flaring, Zhou’s boss steps in to mediate, offering a possible solution: “An Olympic Games of theft,” Zhou announces, finally succumbing to the silliness of it all.

The Wild Goose Lake doesn’t take itself as seriously as Diao Yinan’s previous film, the breakthrough, Golden Bear–winning Black Coal, Thin Ice. As the above scene illustrates, there’s a newfound sense of farce. Rather than servicing the melodrama of the film, as in Black Coal’s mood-washed frames of neon red and icy blue, Diao’s flamboyant visual style here works sardonically—accentuating evil in a strange, unfamiliar way. It points to a deeper social sickness, where ultra-violence plays as a slapstick reprieve from the absurdity of everyday life. While Black Coal has the benefit of a single, guiding moral agent—a detective with a crime to solve—Wild Goose suffers from a more ubiquitous moral rot. Wuhan’s inhabitants, whether members of the Jiang Hu mafia or an ever-increasing plain-clothes police state, are all uniformly criminal in their capacity for betrayal. As a typical noir antihero, Zhou proves only minimally more virtuous. After accidentally killing a policeman, Zhou is forced into hiding; feeling doomed, he decides to seek out his estranged wife Yang (Regina Wan) so that she can claim the significant bounty for his capture.

Diao introduces the police in the same way as the Jiang Hu: the police chief doling out street assignments to an incompetent task force—“Will you teach us how to fire our guns?” The ethical equivalence of cop and robber here stems from a lack of meaningful choice. These civilians playing policemen haven’t signed on to hunt Zhou out of their own personal sense of justice, but the opportunity to rise in status and social credit; their reward, more than just money, is the establishment of actual personhood. In the throes of a banal totalitarian regime, one’s options are limited to either submitting to the state or rebelling as an outlaw, and people will do anything to escape their tortured precariat status. The same is true of Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), one of the many criminals taking refuge at The Wild Goose Lake—a remote town on the outskirts of Wuhan overrun by pimps, drug dealers, and prostitutes. Dressed in bikinis and black veils, Liu and her fellow “bathing beauties” flock to the lake over summer to work as undercover escorts, ostensibly offering some kind of body-washing service. Sympathizing with Zhou’s predicament, Liu acts as his day-walking emissary, making contact with Yang and arranging for Zhou’s capture as a means of expunging her criminal record.

Our first glimpse of Liu’s beleaguered life as a prostitute comes during a montage of surveillance footage at The Wild Goose Lake. These high-angled, desaturated images of an underworld at work lay bare the fact that we are always being watched, whether by camera, location data, or the myriad potential informants hiding in plain sight. (Later in the film, Liu notices someone paying too much attention: “Is he one of ours or one of theirs?”) This constant supervision forces people into hiding, often assuming, like Liu and her fellow bathers, a kind of disguise. Every noodle bar or cigarette stall is a front for something more menacing, a portal into the pervasive criminality of Diao’s China. As a result, society becomes a kind of skeuomorph, where a place or person’s initial function exists only as a façade—a performed reality mandated by the threat of punitive action. This, of course, posits its own sense of imprisonment. Liu and Yang are restricted to only moving at night, keeping their faces concealed at all times (alluding to the algorithmic entrapment of facial recognition software). When Hua Hua, Liu’s boss, discovers that Yang has been traveling with a mobile phone, he emphatically destroys the device.

These divisions—of a lived-in reality and a recorded one, of organized crime and law enforcement, of subject and State—are furthered in Diao’s persistent use of animal imagery. With the Jiang Hu often dressed in leopard spots or zebra stripes, and given bestial names like Cat’s Eye, the motif could easily signal freedom: the notion that gangsters exist in a dominion of lawlessness and rebellion. But one crucial sequence undermines this idea. During a police chase, one of Zhou’s henchmen is cornered at a nearby zoo. Diao crosscuts between the iron sights of police pistols and the eyes of various beasts—owls, giraffes, tigers, and the fugitive, too. It likens criminals to animals in captivity, reframing the comparison in terms of dehumanization and control. In his essay, “The Animals: Territory and Metamorphoses,” Jean Baudrillard references a study on industrial breeding farms, striking a similar “parallel between these animals sick from surplus value and humans sick from industrial concentration.”

Where the study discovered hysteria among chickens, sterility among rabbits, and cannibalism among pigs, The Wild Goose Lake offers its own insanities of mass incarceration. Going beyond the black and white nihilism of old school noir, Diao’s world is portrayed as entirely absurd, often resembling the overpopulated, labyrinthine landscapes of Orson Welles’s The Trial—only more lurid and spectacular. Just as the film moves away from the bleak North of Diao’s previous work, Wild Goose equally represents a departure from any aspect of social realism. What we get instead is a more provocative, stylistic obsession with violence: gangsters decapitated during a scooter-stealing race or eviscerated with an umbrella. It’s as shocking as it is ridiculous, but not without a purpose. All this brutality makes visible the unseen violence of state subjugation—that dull, quotidian sadism sometimes glimpsed in Diao’s depiction of the working-class (like the coal miners or ice salesmen in Black Coal, Thin Ice). Rather than resorting to heroism, Diao opts for an ill-fated insurgence—a life no more or less fatalistic than any other in Wuhan, but perhaps better lived than toiling unto death.