AFI Fest 2014: ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’

When you’re receiving coal for processing, you probably don’t expect to find an arm or a leg in the shipments. When legs and arms and other body parts turn up at a coal factory northern China, detective Zhang (Liao Fan) begins an investigation. That’s the black coal, but then comes the thin ice.

The year is 1999, but in China before the big economic boom. The dead man is Liang Zhijun, a worker in the coal industry and the husband of a laundry worker, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei).

Liang’s co-worker remembers him as “He wasn’t a talkative guy. I used to beat him at chess.” Supposedly Liang worked at the coal scales for eight years and never made an enemy.

As a detective, Zhang doesn’t exactly have a way with the ladies. When Liang’s widow breaks into tears, Zhang tells her, “There’s no point in crying. You’re just wasting time. We need your cooperation.” As it turns out Zhang needs a bit more than that, like a few more lessons on what not to do when arresting a suspect.

Zhang identifies a suspect and goes for an arrest at a hair salon,  but things go wrong and not in a Law & Order way. You almost can’t believe how the bust goes down.

Five years later, Zhang also can’t quite get over that one terrible night. He’s turned to alcohol and now makes a living as a security guard. From his old partner, he learns that there are more dismemberments. Oddly enough, all of the men are somehow connected with the widow Wu. Wu still works at the laundry/dry cleaner.

This is film noir in the urban despair of a rapidly modernizing China where the rich still coerce the poor beyond endurance and push them into murder and love or loyalty can be a chain to the past. This is a film noir without the femme fatale who displays her cleavage like bait for ravenous dogs. The widow Wu is downcast and fatalistic. Is she really a black widow or just unlucky in love.

The Chinese title “Bai Ri Yan Huo” 白日焰火 actually translates into “Daylight Fireworks.” Oddly enough, it is listed in the Internet Movie Database under its Japanese title (Hakuhyou no Satsujin 白氷の殺人 which means “White Ice Assassin”).  Director Yi-nan Diao won a Golden Berlin Bear Award at the Berling International Film Festival and Fan Liao won the Silver Berlin Bear Award for Best Actor.  In Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.

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