ByHenry Yuan, writer at
Henry Yuan

Black Coal, Thin Ice (direct translation is ‘Daytime Fireworks’), a film directed by Diao Yin An, received the Golden Bear award at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. However this movie was awfully confusing and had too many twists and turns for its own good. Even though I am Chinese and understood the dialogue the film was still very difficult to follow and required long discussions and a tonne of brain power to finally work out what actually happened.

The film is a detective thriller with snippets of satire and absurdist notions sprinkled throughout, this hybrid of genre sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I never could get into a nice rhythm as the film started off with fairly fast and slick action, incorporating some brilliantly conceived transitions and set pieces, but then suddenly the pace slowed down immensely, dragging the viewers along in an attempt to create an art house film feeling. Overall it was just difficult to settle into leaving me to question whether this film was truly genius or just… frustrating.

This film definitely had many inventive and creative approaches to scenes including the stunning tracking shot that takes us forward in time and the unexpected fireworks finale. A few more of these moments would’ve really made this film a little more memorable. Diao Yin An interestingly uses very little background music, allowing the sounds of footsteps (and at times, ice-skates) to dominate many of the scenes. I found this didn’t detract from my experience; it really created a lot more tension and generated a feeling of realism, a sense that if any other sound other than the footsteps were heard there would be trouble, it really had me on edge.

Let’s talk about the characters. I felt detached from the characters, personally didn’t sympathise with Zhang Zi Li (the male lead) and I didn’t feel his guilt and his motivation didn’t seem to be clear, however in the end I suppose it was redemption. It’s these type of unclear foundations that make this film difficult to watch. Wu Zhi Zhen (the female lead) had almost no expression throughout the entire film, her stone faced performance really prohibited the romance between the main characters. Their romance was boring and confusing, there is just too much mystery and the audience is left guessing whether their relationship is genuine or not.

This film deftly incorporated elements of social realist commentary, in regards with the idea that life is so cheap to the point that is expendable, and how people are oppressed by their surroundings, having a lot of the scenes at the tiny, dank laundry and the eerie outdoor night-time ice rink, thus reinforcing the sense of isolation and alienation evident in society today, and the lack of ability to take control of ones life.

The story is told indirectly, with no hand-holds for the audience to grasp, and if you can’t keep up, that’s just too bad, because no one is waiting for you. This film will be difficult for most people to watch, as it is an unusual fusion of elements both familiar and strange into something that genre cannot really define, which creates and even more confounding atmosphere. I liked the film, however it potentially could’ve been more accessible, and thus I feel it will not bode well with the majority of viewers.


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