Moments of thrilling visual beauty are studded through this dour Chinese thriller like diamonds through a seam of coal. Beating ‘Boyhood’ to the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ follows disgraced cop turned security guard Zhang (Liao Fan) as he attempts to unravel his final, unsolved murder case. The clues seem to point to solitary, widowed laundry worker Wu (Gwei Lun-Mei), with whom Zhang starts a tentative affair, determined to get to the truth.
With its frosty urban setting and insular characters, this can be an unforgiving watch, unfolding at a grinding pace and paying more attention to the minutiae of interaction and performance than grand gestures or sudden plot revelations (the one major twist, when it comes, is pretty predictable). But it does contain a handful of simply breathtaking moments: a messy, brutal shootout in a glittering arcade; two people ice-skating through a snowbound landscape; a climactic scene of ineffable strangeness and power that brings to life the film’s original Chinese title, ‘Daylight Fireworks’.
‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ may well floor some viewers, as it did the Berlin jury. But others will find it too obtuse and remote, its characters too withdrawn to be relatable. See it, though, for those fleeting, unforgettable visual touches.