A sombre, disquieting and anxiety-ridden neo-neo-noir located in northern China in 1999 and 2004, Black Coal, Thin Ice manages simultaneously and deftly to make the spectator both engaged in the narrative and desensitised to the content. I must admit, the trailer did make me assume I would be watching something considerably more akin to the South Korean I Saw the Devil in nature, but Black Coal, Thin Ice operates more as a police procedural in line with Danish TV series The Killing than anything more fast-paced. Much like The Killing, this film’s main concern is the people investigating and surrounding the crime, albeit with its cards considerably closer to its chest as far as emotions are concerned.
Whilst the acting is impeccable all-round, combined with the notable average shot length and depth of focus to feel highly reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism, the biggest star of all in this film is the camerawork and lighting. The use of colours in this film is breathtakingly beautiful, managing somehow to combine the intensity of Nicolas Winding Refn’s signature look with the soft, warm glow of cinematographer Agnès Godard. The latter comparison strikes me as particularly relevant, given this films willingness to linger on small details on the floor or in the snow, contributing an atmosphere of the haptic visuality we have come to expect from Claire Denis’ later works (and, notably, collaborations with Godard) like Vendredi Soir. Most telling of all, though, is the strange dance scene near the very of Black Coal, Thin Ice that seems to be a strong and direct reference to the ending of Denis’ film Beau Travail with, in my opinion, similar metaphorical implications. For those of you who have seen neither film, I’ll say no more.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is perhaps too slow a burner, but one should be able to let go and accept the murder and murderer’s identity as something of a mcguffin in the face of a stylised, yet intensely realist, tale of a desperate last-ditch attempt at redemption on the part of an alcoholic cop in a bleak survivalist part of the world he barely understands.