Jonah Jeng on Diao Yinan (Black Coal, Thin Ice)
Diao Yinan’s 2014 film Black Coal, Thin Ice tells a tale of murder, places the mantle of hero on an alcoholic ex-cop, features a femme fatale figure who romances multiple men and harbors dark secrets, and takes place in an urban milieu encased in darkness and snow. In other words, it references the iconography of so-called classical film noir. Yet the film is hardly a work of mere stylistic homage. The film takes up not only these surface features but also noir’s modernist spirit, mapping the total ethos of the genre’s classical period onto a contemporary context that is both similar to and radically different from postwar America and Europe: the modernization of China and the ensuing dissolution of social bonds within the caustic solvent of capitalism’s logic of self-servitude. The film is a brilliant instance of genre being deployed as a code that can transcend time and space: by referencing the recognizable features of classical film noir, the movie links two contexts that seem at first to be irreconcilable, making legible the wide, homogenizing reach of capitalism across epochs and cultural borders. It restores to noir the socioeconomic stakes—the “authenticity”—that characterized it in its classical form, in such films as Scarlet Street, Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity, In a Lonely Place, and The Third Man.
For China, the social alienation that resulted from modernization feels especially forceful given the nation’s relatively recent history of communist governance that insisted (albeit in often inhumane ways) on the importance of communal solidarity. Black Coal, Thin Ice joins a string of other Chinese films that grapple with the social fallout of capitalism, ranging from the works of Jia Zhangke (most notably A Touch of Sin, which, like Diao’s film, links extreme violence to capitalism run amok) to Li Yang’s Blind Shaft, which shares Black Coal, Thin Ice’s concern with coal in its focus on two miners who, drunk on the allure of capitalistic self-aggrandizement, concoct a scheme where they murder fellow workers, pass the killing off as accidents, then pretend to be the victims’ relatives in order to collect the mining company’s settlement pay. In Diao’s film, the formula is inverted in that deadly violence is shown to be a reaction against such self-aggrandizement. Near the film’s end, mystery woman and love interest Wu Zhizhen is revealed to have committed the murder that set off the film’s cycle of violence, except her motive was neither psychopathy nor rage. Rather, it was self-preservation in the face of a man who, invoking the capitalistic rationale of equivalent exchange, demanded sex from her as payment for a coat she’d accidentally ruined.
Such is Diao’s bleak vision of the modern world, and he indicates his interest in modernity from the get-go. The film’s opening scene takes place in 1999, a date that, despite being as arbitrary a year as any other, was historically loaded with implications of imminent change. The first shots we see are of modernizing industry in full swing, with Diao’s camera taking us through various stages in the coal mining process and the soundtrack foregrounding the clanking and whirring of machinery. Interspersed among this footage are shots indicating a divorce between protagonist Zhang Zili and his wife, a forceful separation from the past that resonates with the spirit of the turn of the millennium. For better or for worse, something different was allegedly around the corner, and the entire film seems to be bracing for what comes next.
When the film does leap forward in time, the result is a formally breathtaking anticlimax. As Zhang, at this point still a cop, and his partner drive through a tunnel, a shot takes the car’s perspective, gliding through the passage toward the opening on the other side. As this forward tracking shot continues unbroken, we suddenly find ourselves in 2004—snow is falling, and Zhang is slumped over on the side of the road, plastered and crying from some unknown affliction. A diffuse feeling of unrealized dreams and unfulfilled promises permeates the frame. In this scene, the sense of time’s unstoppable forward movement coupled paradoxically with an uninterrupted shot, which would seem to suspend time, brings to mind the iconic, one-take opening of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo in which Shu Qi’s protagonist walks into the aughts with ghosts of the past on her heels and a vast unknown stretched out before her.
In the case of Black Coal, Thin Ice, the shot’s persistent forward push evokes not only time’s inevitable march but the inexorable momentum of modernization, a phenomenon foregrounded during moments in the 2004 segment where characters make seemingly throwaway references to the expansion of their respective businesses. When Zhang visits the former head of a clothing exports company as part of a murder investigation, the guy mentions that he transitioned from the export business to the (presumably more “modern” and lucrative) Internet business, whereas the owner of an upscale nightclub, upon hearing Zhang bring up the establishment’s pre-renovation days, says, “Of course, we’re bigger and better now.” At the same time, the way the uninterrupted nature of the shot signals a continuity between past, present, and future suggests that, perhaps, not much has actually changed. An as-yet unmentioned detail about the film’s opening is the fact that, during our tour of the coal mining process, we see a dismembered arm, riding atop the piles of coal until a frantic worker spots the gruesome oddity and yells for the machinery to be momentarily turned off. Years pass, but the violence continues: more body parts are found in 2004, and the killer remains at large, signaling the prolongation of a criminal case to the point of staleness and existential despair à la Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder or David Fincher’s Zodiac.
At the conclusion of Diao’s 2003 debut film Uniform, the protagonist is seen peddling desperately away from furious pursuers. The shot runs long enough to convey the chase and then keeps on going, prolonging the spectacle of his peddling until the length and aimlessness of his efforts become the point. Evoked here is the famous climax from François Truffaut’s 400 Blows in which a long, unbroken shot captures Antoine Doinel sprinting nowhere, except, in the case of Uniform, this notion of movement without destination speaks specifically to the paradoxical coexistence of change and stasis that is at the heart of capitalism. In Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao generates the same impression of restless, pointless activity by imbuing a milieu of expanding business with a bone-deep sense of ennui. Diao achieves this by sustaining a deadpan tone, frequently opting for long, static shots even when the action being depicted is highly dramatic. The most striking instance of this occurs early on when several suspects, encircled by Zhang and several fellow officers in a barbershop, suddenly get their hands on a gun and, without warning, shoot two of the men dead before a shocked, fumbling Zhang finally gets out his firearm and puts down the attackers. Throughout most of this scene, which involves the crack of pistol-fire, spraying blood, and falling bodies, Diao uses a fixed long shot that inflects the ostensibly traumatizing violence with a sense of ironic matter-of-factness, folding the depicted brutality into the fabric of the modern mundane.
This ethos of deadpan persists also in the way the film replaces the conventionally brisk pacing of the film noir detective narrative with a potent languidness—an impression created through the protracted length of time it takes for certain conventional plot beats to be hit; the subdued register of the performances; and the minimization of emotive moments that many other genre films would have foregrounded (e.g. scenes of rage or grieving), an omission that lends the narrative a somnambulist rhythm befitting its tale of emotional numbness and societal malaise. To an extent, slowness and ironic distance via intense formalism have become general, stylistic staples within so-called “art-cinema,” a category to which Black Coal, Thin Ice certainly belongs. However, these features, when viewed against the film’s narrative focus on an accelerated world that nonetheless seems to be standing still, take on specific significance for the film’s vision of China’s turn to capitalism.
Against such systemic transformations, what can be done? The film provides no solutions, for none exist. The world is changing at speeds and scales beyond the ability of the individual to comprehend, and it’s challenging simply to get one’s bearings, let alone to resist the tide. That said, Black Coal, Thin Ice is not devoid of hope. The film’s optimism lies in nascent embers of resistance that are, at present, too small to be fanned into a revolutionary flame but nonetheless point toward a warmer, brighter future. These moments of rupture, in contrast to the instrumentalism of capitalist thinking, are marked by absurdity, non-utility, and anarchy—in other words, by their inability to be contained and subsumed into the project of modernization.
In the film’s 2004 segment, when police make a trip to an apartment complex to pursue possible leads, they are suddenly confronted with a horse, standing in the middle of the hallway. This bizarre image serves no narrative function, and yet it is precisely the way it stalls the workings of narrative that marks the moment as a glimpse of excess, functioning outside social forward motion. Later in the film, Zhang’s conversation with the CEO of the former clothing export company/current Internet corporation is interrupted by the sound of a furious arcade patron smashing a slot machine to the point of drawing smoke. This moment teases a breakdown of capitalist society wherein those who lose out act out, channeling their frustration in ways that exceed what is “acceptable” and often directly target the apparatuses of modernization viewed to be responsible for their oppression.
The two most powerful moments of resistance, however, occur near the end of the film. In one, Zhang, having turned Wu over to the cops even as he’s evidently fallen for her, visits a ballroom through which he’d pursued a killer in an earlier scene. As an onlooker plays music for him through a set of tinny speakers, he ventures onto the now mostly empty dance floor and starts gyrating wildly, contorting in ways that—unlike the ballroom dancers in the background that form a point of contrast—don’t fit any particular dance style. The anarchy of his movements are powerful on one level simply because they signal a release of complex and inchoate feeling, expressing an entire film’s worth of confusion, guilt, and unfulfilled desire in a moment of feverish physicality à la Denis Lavant’s spasmodic dance at the end of Claire Denis’s Beau travail. On another level, it’s a freeing from institutional demands, an explicit rejection of historical attempts to maximize productivity through the regulation of the human body.
The film’s final minutes extend and expand the spirit of disorder from Zhang’s dance, breaking completely from the forward movement of the detective-film narrative toward events that appear at first to have nothing to do with the preceding film. The concluding scene begins with cops taking Wu to the site of her first murder and having her give a play-by-play of how she procured her murder weapon and killed her victim (this moment of recollection is fascinating because Wu’s narration of the past takes place within a space that, having since undergone renovation and housed new tenants, no longer looks as it did on that fateful day. Thus, her recounting of the murder conjures a sense of the way history haunts physical space). The scene closes by peering into a revolutionary future. As the police lead Wu out of the building, firecrackers suddenly rain down from an adjacent rooftop, showering the procession with sparks and prompting everyone to run for cover. Via megaphone, the cowering cops command the unseen culprit to stop only to have their demands met by more firecrackers. The fire brigade soon arrives, and the final shot of the film is of two firemen riding a slowly ascending platform carrying them to where the prankster presumably is. The film ends before they arrive, leaving the resolution unknown.
This coda, arriving at the close of a structurally traditional, if innovative, detective narrative, inspires befuddlement. But when viewed alongside the horse, the machine breaking, and Zhang’s dance, this moment takes on a revolutionary tenor, disrupting the rationalist order that is here embodied by the presence of bureaucratic law enforcement and the block-like architecture of the apartment complex. The firecrackers, tearing across the landscape, neither pursue a logical course nor cohere into any particular pattern; they rebel against the very notion of structure and control. It is essential that we never see the prankster herself, because her invisibility ensures that revolutionary agency isn’t confined to a single body at a particular time within a particular place. Rather, her non-presence seems to suggest that the fireworks represent not a single revolutionary act but revolution in general.
Wu, though undoubtedly facing a severe sentence for the crime of murder, lets out a small smile at the sight of the firecrackers. In a film of such penetrating cynicism as Black Coal, Thin Ice, this tiny gesture speaks volumes even as it maintains a sense of ambivalence about the future. In some ways, the film’s ending plays like the inverse of the finale of iconic film noir Key Largo, in which Humphrey Bogart’s ex-major Frank McCloud, having vanquished the gangsters that to him embody the evil of a postwar world, turns around the boat on which the final firefight took place and sets course for the shore. The tone of the ending is largely victorious, with the villains lying defeated and the hero unscathed, but the film stops before Frank reaches land, leaving viewers with the final image of a ship adrift on the waves, which seem to represent larger, societal ills that lie unresolved.
A sense of drift and uncertainty likewise permeates the final moments of Black Coal, Thin Ice, except the tone here is largely tragic and melancholic, with the apprehended killer unexpectedly becoming the film’s chief source of pathos and the true criminal—the system—going scot-free. And yet, one is left feeling not only downbeat but exhilarated, the result of seeing a filmmaker so eloquently mobilize genre, narrative, film form, and sociopolitical context to create a work that both takes the fading pulse of a capitalistic society and locates possible life in acts of insurrectional rupture. Black Coal, Thin Ice is itself such an act, and Diao a revolutionary filmmaker of the highest order.