The mystery/thriller genre has an extensive history of elevating recurring plot ideas with the right visual tempo, where the immersion involved in capturing an environment's atmosphere and culture can give the suspense its own unique qualities. In the same vein, imagery can also prove to be a distraction from shallow plotting, and distinguishing between the two often boils down to the individual. Black Coal, Thin Ice (aka Bai Ri Yan Huo, or Daylight Fireworks), the award-winning neo-noir thriller from Diao Yinan, toes that line between immersion and distraction in its depiction of macabre murders in a moderately-sized industrial city, a case that leads to the disgrace -- and, eventually, the desire for redemption -- of the detectives attached. Haunting, organic photography guides a stark point-of-view through a mix of neon lights and a dark wintry haze, yet the visual flair and the grounded substance of the performances contained within aren't enough to disguise the slender, anticlimactic mystery propelling it.
Black Coal, Thin Ice starts out in 1999, with police detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) feeling the emotional after-effects of a divorce shortly before getting involved with a brutal murder case. Like flower petals, several limbs severed from a body are found at coal plants across northern China, paired with enough evidence to pursue leads. Events that occur while the police connect those dots go sour and result in dismissals from the force, sending Zhang Zili into a downward spiral. Several years pass where the disgraced, alcoholic cop struggles with sustaining a security job, something that changes after he reconnects with his old partner, who informs him that several other murders have occurred exactly like the infamous one that led to his removal from the force. An opportunity for personal and professional absolution mixed with reminiscence of his glory days leads Zhang Zili to assist in rekindling the investigation, directing him through the doors of a dry-cleaning business employing a woman, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), with potential ties to the victims.
Strategic framing of industrialized and urban areas, vibrant colors oppressed by the frigidity of winter, and a careful flow of movement across the landscape establish a severe, oddly entrancing atmosphere for Black Coal, Thin Ice. Director Diao Yinan displays a confident eye for stillness and subtle motion in his images, concentrating on posture and gestures during conversations in everyday areas and focusing on the expressive body language of focal characters walking, running, even skating through the setting. He also employs a menacing technique of accentuating the morbidity of situations, nonchalantly and unflinchingly alert to the quickness in which circumstances can change based on the maneuverings of dangerously motivated people. Everything errs towards this mythical, yet grounded attitude about the hunt for the killer, down to the unsettling discovery of those chopped-up body parts scattered about the country, relishing the deliberate pace in which these discoveries and moments of violence emerge in the physically and emotionally frigid surroundings.
Despite believably gritty performances from everyone connected to the murders, the characters caught in the mystery of Black Coal, Thin Ice lack much depth beyond stiff noir-like qualities, limiting the film's breadth as any kind of character study. Liao Fan handles the dual sides of Zhang Zili's personality with soulful clarity, transforming him from a lucid professional with miserable determination to a boozy lout driven by incensed retribution, yet there's little more to the antihero than his melancholy hardness while sleuthing. The enigmatic femme fatale he stalks and probes doesn't possess much beyond her enigmas, either: Gwei Lun-Mei aptly portrays a recoiled women with an impenetrable secret, but something's missing in her cautious body language when interrogated at the dry cleaners and in her ice-skating endeavors. Elements of solitude and sticking to convictions, familiar echoes of the film noir genre, intermittently act like they're about to come to the surface by way of the pair's melancholy chemistry, yet are prevented from breaking out by their perpetual dourness.
Unless the femme fatale is at the forefront with her unreadable, distressed attitude, the murder mystery itself lying underneath Black Coal, Thin Ice musters little curiosity or momentum beyond a periodic inclination towards unexpected death. The grim pacing of its meandering chain of questionable developments seems built for a dramatic character examination or social takedown that never fully materializes, inching its way towards a reveal of the killer and their motives that, as a result, are lacking in suspenseful impact. Director Diao Yinan telegraphs the shifting allegiances and cathartic revelations one might expect of the subgenre from an atmospheric but narratively sparse viewpoint, protracted by lengthy shots -- especially leading up to the end -- that emphasize a distorted blur of realistic conditions in northern China with vague illusory actions of the people contained within. Instead of elevating Black Coal, Thin Ice's familiar components, the artfulness of the director's style instead concocts a moody neo-noir portrayal of discontent individuals that's less than the sum of its moving parts.
Video and Audio:
The palette and lighting in Black Coal, Thin Ice form a complex gradient within its uniquely color photography, something the transfer from Well Go USA works diligently to preserve in its 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC Blu-ray treatment. Vivid shades from neon signs are striking yet under control, allowing their glow to permeate rooms without flooding the saturation levels, while subtler shades of green in the laundry and yellow at the outdoor skating rink carefully envelop their targets. Standard, well-balanced lighting coaxes splendidly responsive skin tones and fine details out of coal, blocks of ice, and woodgrain, while the strategically-framed symmetry of windows, stairs, and trains sustain sharp distortion-free lines. The cinematography does tend to get overly noisy in darker sequences, though, and while contrast often sustains a reputable balance between proper darkness and detail respectfulness, black levels are occasionally washed-out and impose on harder-to-discern elements. The Blu-ray transfer hits the bold and subtle highs of the film, though, especially that blinding trip through the snowy tunnel.
A lot of understated, absorbing effects fill out the channels in the 5.1 Chinese DTS-HD Master Audio track: moody touches involving the harsh winter weather, the movement of cars and trains, and the sounds of an urban environment. The track from Well Go USA makes ample use of the rear surround stage to keep the audience locked into the atmosphere being crafted, voices on a PA system, the scraping of skates, even the subtle on-an-off hum of washers and dryers nail their dimensionality. Bold sound effects are in short supply, relegated to broken bottles and gunfire and the explosions of fireworks, but their vigor and clarity are handled with plenty of natural assertiveness and ample low-end reactivity. Verbal clarity is stable, comfortably at the center channel in the atmospheres of the scenes, and musical volume -- both isolated music and that coming from the envronment -- makes nice use of the surround stage. English subtitles are available with the sole Chinese language track.
Nothing, aside from a Trailer (1:39, 16x9 HD).
Black Coal, Thin Ice offers an unsettling murder case, a flawed and complex group of characters with emotive agendas, and an ensnaring visual style, all of which holds a lot of potential to become a winning entry in the contemporary noir subgenre. Taken as a whole, though, these parts feel disparate from one another, either placing too much emphasis on its deliberate pace and camerawork or not enough on its stock characters and humdrum, low-tension mystery. The result is hypnotic, slow-moving, grim, vaguely philosophical and ultimately unfulfilling as either a thriller or a character piece, a complicated jumble of impressions for such a substantive and calculated premise. Certainly worth a Rental.