Viewers are advised to pay close attention during this Golden Bear-winning noir. A contemporary detective story with shades of Hammett and Chandler, Black Coal, Thin Ice twists and turns as it goes: even the jolting electronic music over the end credits springs another surprise.
The film opens in industrial northern China, where, in 1999, pieces of a dismembered corpse turn up at a coal mine. The dead man, husband to a laundry worker and the picture’s resident femme fatale, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), is quickly identified, as is the prime suspect. Tough cop Zhang (Liao Fan) swoops in to make an arrest. Carnage ensues.
We fast-forward five years and the still traumatised Zhang now drunkenly stumbles through his daily duties as a security guard. But when his former partner tells him of a similar murder, Zhang straightens up enough to conduct his own investigation, focusing on Wu, a woman whose deadened attractiveness serves to move more than one gentleman caller.
Sickly greens and lurid neon blaze through production design that is like a jaundiced echo of David Wasco's work on Pulp Fiction. The airlessness of the staging serves to heighten the mounting tension, as does Dong Jinsong's shadowy cinematography.
Against the aesthetics, this is an extraordinary physical film: soup is slurped, faces are slapped, breasts are groped. Though most of the bloodshed happens coyly off-screen or in the murk, casual violence and a quickness-to-anger is seldom far away.
Lion Fan does sterling Bogartian work as the downtrodden gumshoe, and Gwei Lun Mei keeps us guessing about her involvement until the end. An odd coda unravels the mystery only to pose another unanswered question.
Director Diao Yinan, whose previous Night Train was selected for Cannes in 2007, just keeps getting better.