Diao Yinan’s Berlinale Golden Bear winner, ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’, smuggles fascinating layers into a genre film

Posted on July 18, 2020

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Genre films can express an attitude towards society, towards reality. In other words, instead of expressing his views on society through a “social” drama, the director is opting to say what he wants to say through stories of crime.

The plot of Black Coal, Thin Ice (in Mandarin, and released in 2014) is the stuff of classic murder-mystery, and the opening stretch lays out this premise with clinical efficiency. The year is 1999. There’s some sort of cloth-wrapped package peeking out from the coal at the back of a truck. The shape of the package becomes clearer as the coal is dumped into a yard, scooped up and deposited on a conveyor belt, and before long, a helmeted employee is shouting to the line operator to shut the power off. As the belt comes to a stop, we see what the package contained: a severed hand.

Meanwhile, we have been cross-cutting to a man and a woman. While all this soundless action has been happening around the coal, these two have been playing cards, soundlessly. And just when the lifeless hand is discovered, we cut to the woman’s hands here. The couple is now making love and her fingers are twitching. The man, we learn, is a detective named Zhang Zili. He’s obtained a divorce from this woman, and this appears to be their last meeting.

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