Black Coal, Thin Ice is a rare kind of a film that demonstrates the role that an aesthetic focus and beautiful and vast cinematography can have in defining a piece of cinema. Film is a multi-faceted medium that viewers will engage with in their own myriad of ways. Diao Yinan’s latest opus is a film unashamedly focused on interacting with the visual appeal of cinema. At its core, Yinan’s film is one of China’s most prominent works in the film noir genre, appropriating it for a more modern, industrial and chaotic environment. In the genre’s history itself, plot has never been at the centre of the film; generally concerned with constructing an environment, a cinematic world and a sense of milieu that pushes the actual events to the periphery – Black Coal, Thin Ice falls into line with convention in this, with a plot that lacks memorability, and a narrative often derivative, cliche and uninventive. Whilst these factors would fundamentally undermine more conventional films, Yinan’s overt lack of concern for them in the first place highlights the film’s goal as something markedly focused on creating an atmospheric noir.
There is a murder mystery running throughout the film, but if you’re trying to solve it – if you still care by the end of it – you’ve watched and interacted with the movie in a way Yinan doesn’t intend the viewer to do. When the key premise of the murder is so casually revealed in a brutally anti-cathartic manner, it feels like an overt message to the audience to stop caring and focusing on the murder – it’s the skeleton of the film, yes, but the cinematic flesh and the mesmerising aesthetic body of the work are the assets that should leave the viewer in awe. It’s easy to discount Black Coal as a “beautifully shot film” before saying “but”. That said, the cinematography and the filming of Black Coal, Thin Ice is a lot more sublime, a lot more intricate and has far more to it than simply being ‘beautiful’ – its an artwork primarily concerned with the aesthetic and this defines the film. Diao Yinan works with an incredible depth of frame in his shots throughout and there exists an intrinsic complexity to every frame that only begins to bleed through in 2nd and 3rd viewings.
The industrial is of particular fascination in this film, and Yinan’s presentation of it creates something finely articulated and captivating, a visual metanarrative – a parallel story of sorts – of intense loneliness, thematic isolation, and something intimately personal to Yinan’s own time spent in Xi’an. When I spoke to Yinan he spoke of the industrial as having a type of beauty and this having a strong relationship to humanity. When he mentioned that “a person from an industrial background can also see the loneliness it creates”, it definitely added a depth to his constructed world. Setting the film in Harbin is integral to the film as something symbolic of China’s industrial zenith, with gargantuan structures and factories dwarfing their human companions. On top of this, however, is the style of the industrial that Harbin exhibits – ice-laden, worn down by nature, and defined by a more brutal sense of isolation due to its climate – the city is something coldly detached, industrial and dissonant to humanity; yet somehow, Yinan is able to find a poetic brilliance in it – a talent he hinted was the result of his familiarity with the area and this aforementioned loneliness. Bai Ri Yan Huo – the Chinese name of the film – translates more literally to “fireworks in daylight” evoking something fantastic, and showing an interesting layer of cultural vicissitudes that Yinan acknowledges. To him, China is in “dire need of emotional catharsis”. Coal and ice on the other hand, belong to what Yinan deems “the realm of reality” and their position in the English translation opens similar questions about what Yinan wants his film to say to his respective audiences at home and abroad.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is a genre-film; a complex one at that – within an already equally complicated genre – and this is difficult to comprehend at first. It presents the viewer with a plot, yet doesn’t really intend for them to pay much attention to it, and while the opening shots of power plants and winding fields of ice try to make this clear, it’s not overt enough for viewers to try and follow this as a typical noir. It’s much more than that. It’s Diao Yinan’s first filmic opus that tries to egress its boundaries towards something sublime, hypnogogic and physically transcendent. It leaves a lot of distractions floating around, but if you treat them as insignificant as they feel, Black Coal, Thin Ice is an incredibly consuming, astoundingly beautiful and consistently awe-inspiring movie.
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