Black Coal, Thin Ice
aka 白日焰火 aka Bai Ri Yan Huo aka Daylight Fireworks
Written and directed by Diao Yinan
In the bleak urban atmosphere of a rapidly industrializing China, body parts begin to appear at a coal processing plant mixed in with the incoming coal shipments. Those thought responsible are found, and after a bloody conclusion, things seemed solved. Years later a new crop of body parts appear, and things get darker from there. A disgraced cop who worked on the original case must put aside his own demons long enough to figure out the who-done-it before he becomes the next set of parts showing up in coal plants.
Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice paints a murder mystery backdropped by the new urban China, the landscape coated in layers of snow that mask the grit below. Glowing neon signs provide an aurora of human habitation among the snow, lighting many of the key locations. But the glow doesn’t show the warmth of humanity, it’s an unnatural presence that makes the night time illumination otherworldly. The inhabitants have their own secrets and shady lives, and who did what and why makes the mystery akin to peeling onions.
Officer Zhang Zili is an up and coming investigator with the police, though the first sign of trouble is his wife leaving him. The investigation around the body parts in the plant yields the name of the victim, the widow confused as to why her husband was targeted. Robbery suspects are located, but thanks to one of them being armed many of the characters of the first act get wiped out, Zhang only barely escaping death by killing them.
Years later, Zhang Zili lives in an alcohol-fueled state of minimal functionality. His reintroduction is him having his motorcycle stolen while he’s too drunk to give chase. He’s burned every bridge at work, where he is a walking joke kept on because of fading goodwill over surviving the shooting incident that capstoned the murder investigation.
But then more body parts are found in coal processing plants. Dun dun DUNNN!!!
Zhang’s ex-partner Detective Wang, who has gone on to a career, let’s his old partner in on the new investigation and how the clues point to a woman who was the wife of the original victim, Wu Zhizhen.
Zhang seems to come out of his fugue state, slowly turning into a hardened investigator. But bodies and body parts begin to pile up, and Zhang has a growing infatuation with Wu Zhizhen, doubly unfortunate because all her prior lovers were the ones found in pieces at the coal plants. Danger stalks from all corners, and Zhang must escape attacks while piecing together the mystery.
The plot and setting would make a good few episode run of an anthology show like True Detective or Fargo. Zhang is one of the troubled detectives those shows are fond of, and despite his obvious flaws, he begins to grow on you. Liao Fan (Let the Bullets Fly) packs in moments of charm during Zhang’s benders, and settles in with an obsessive determination to solve the case regardless of the dangers to himself.
A standout performance is Gwei Lun-Mei as Wu Zhizhen, the wife of the first victim, who takes on a black widow specter as further attempted lovers wind up dead. Her connection to the killings is one facet of the mystery. Wu appears a quiet homebody, who works at a dry cleaning store. But her beauty draws unwanted attention, and her character hints that she’s more than just a quiet lady who does nothing but work.
The direct translation of the title is “Daylight Fireworks“, director Diao Yinan explains “Coal and ice both belong to the realm of reality, but fireworks in daylight is something fantastic; they are the two sides of the same coin.” The fantastic daylight fireworks do appear at the conclusion, in a moment of catharsis of one of the main characters. The neon signs that dot the urban landscape can also be seen as forms of daylight fireworks, a fantastic promise of life in a cold and dark city. The only lively area outside without massive neon lights is the ice skating park visited by several characters, and once people leave the well-lit skating area, it becomes a life and death struggle.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is unique not that it is a Chinese neonoir investigative film, but that it’s a really good film from China, one with a focus on characters and writing instead of trying to graft as many special effects as possible onto someone’s first draft. The landscape may be bleak, but the hope that this film will bear fruit. Fans of detective stories or just darker tales of murder and mystery will find plenty to love here.
Rated 8/10 (ex-wife, our hero, partner, store owner, gone skating, investigating, brightness in the white, nighttime daytime fireworks)
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