China’s working poor are regularly ignored and exploited, but from their ranks will emerge an unlikely black widow that even James Cain would appreciate. Wu Zhizhen toils thanklessly in a provincial dry cleaner, but the last three men to be romantically linked to her met with early demises. Her suspicious misfortune attracts the attention of a disgraced ex-cop in Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
In 1999, hard boozing Det. Zhang Zili is called to investigate the discovery of multiple body parts at the local coal processing plant. Learning other pieces have turned up at other facilities, Zhang connects the dots to the Liu brothers, two drivers with a sketchy past. However, his routine inquiry goes spectacularly bad. The case is presumed solved, but that will not save his career.
Five years later, an old colleague comes to Zhang for an off the books consultation. The widow of the dismembered coal corpse has just lost her third significant other to foul play. The two more recent bodies were both found wearing ice skates, suggesting an obvious pattern. Seeking some sort of personal satisfaction, Zhang starts following Wu, but she is neither careless nor easily intimidated. However, as she gets used to his presence, she starts to entertain his overtures.
Like a Taiwanese Bette Davis, Gwei Lun Mei is a deceptively innocent looking femme fatale, but still a powerfully seductive screen presence. Well suited for Wu, she keeps audience sympathies sharply divided and expectations off-balance throughout Coal. She is also probably the biggest international movie star gracing Tribeca screens this year.
Conversely, Liao Fan revels in Zhang’s anti-heroics and degenerate binging. In fact, his flaws run so deep he had to be cashiered out of the police force to satisfy the Chinese censorship board. Intriguingly off-kilter in a hardnosed kind of way, Liao deservedly won the Silver Bear at Berlin for his work.
In a way, Coal bridges the gap between Chinese “indie films” and commercial releases to a surprising extent. Everything that goes down in Diao’s narrative is ultimately attributable to systemic injustice and inequity. Wu may very well be involved in something nefarious, but it is impossible to judge her harshly. Yet, this pointed social commentary proved to be a monster hit at the Chinese box office.