(The following review is free of spoilers.)
Chinese filmmaker Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice begins in the year 1999 with several body parts being discovered in coal factories situated in different provinces in Northern China. A recently divorced cop named Zhang (Liao Fan) is brought in to investigate these gruesome murders. His investigation leads him to an unexpected and shocking turn of events that culminates in a shocking burst of violence which lands him in the hospital for a short period of time. The film fast forwards 5 years (done nicely in a seamless one-take) and we are in 2004, where we find a disillusioned and alcoholic Zhang now working as a security guard. When he learns from his former partner that the murders have started occurring again, he gets himself involved once again.
The result is a stunning and slow-burn minimalist film that ticks all the right boxes in terms of how to do a chilling and engrossing murder mystery right. This is my first rendezvous with a foreign language film that takes on the classic film noir genre and put a fresh spin on it. Yinan takes full advantage of the neon lights and the snowy landscape to establish a somber and eerie atmosphere. The narrative is low on exposition and makes the viewer’s brain work for a change. This is a film that takes its own time to tell its story. This sort of storytelling doesn’t always work but here it does and how. Yinan doesn’t rely on a background score and instead uses the ambient noises to evoke dread and a sense of uneasiness. This is visual storytelling at its finest.