Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Diao Yinan’s Wild Goose Lake

Zhou Zenong is in trouble. The mainland cops are after him and there is nothing too ruthless or too unscrupulous they won’t do to capture (or better yet kill) the small-time gangster. Remember, they are the ones who taught police brutality to their Hong Kong colleagues. Nevertheless, Zhou realizes it is entirely his own fault, because he very definitely killed a cop in Diao Yinan’s ultra-noir Wild Goose Lake, which opens this Friday in New York.

Zhou is the kind of world-weary hoodlum who prefers to keep things low key. Unfortunately, the local Jiang Hu (underworld) boss forces Zhou’s motorcycle-stealing ring to compete for their choice turf against a group of young punky upstarts. Unfortunately, the larceny “Olympics” turn violent to such an extent, Zhou kills a cop by mistake.

At this point, the die is cast. Zhou knows only too well no fugitive can elude capture in the People’s Republic for long. At least he will try to engineer a more favorable endgame. His original idea is to have his semi-estranged wife Yang Shujun turn him in so she can claim the reward money. Sadly, that scheme becomes untenable due to the police surveillance and harassment focused on Yang.

Liu Aiai is plan B. She is a so-called “bathing beauty” who works for Zhou’s pimp friend Hua Hua around the rather hedonistic Wild Goose Lake. Liu is supposed to drop a dime on Zhou and then turn the reward money over to Yang after taking her cut. Of course, Zhou is not sure he can trust Liu or Hua Hua, or any of his old associates—with good reason. Plus, the rival gang is still out to get him. It all contributes to the sort of long night of the soul Diao specializes in.

Wild Goose is not as twisty or suspenseful as Diao’s contemporary classic, Black Coal Thin Ice, but it is still superior film noir. While his plot is more straightforward and almost pre-determined right from the start (indeed, that is sort of the whole point), he and cinematographer Dong Jingsun craft a look and mood worthy of vintage Edward Hopper paintings and Ida Lupino films.

Diao also reunites with the co-leads of Black Coal, but Liao Fan takes a more secondary role as the relentless, Javert-like Captain Liu, but he is quite convincing as the cynical, maybe even soulless copper. Gwei Lun Mei is absolutely arresting and heartbreaking as Liu Aiai, the exploited “bathing beauty.” Frankly, it is sometimes difficult to watch what her character must so realistically endure, but that is why it is such a brave performance.

It is also quite intriguing to see her and Hu Ge’s Zhou circle round each other in a nearly two-hour dance of trust and suspicion. As the fugitive, Hu broods and boils over explosively. Every second he is on screen, he exudes both danger and existential fatalism. Arguably, he and Gwei match up even better than she and Liao did in Coal. As is usually the case with noirs, Wild Goose has a number of colorful villains, but Qi Dao is particularly notable for the bad vibes he radiates as shiftily behaving Hua Hua.

Throughout Wild Goose, there are clear, unmistakable parallels between the gang-like behavior of both the cops and the Jiang Hu. If you cross either, you will find yourself in a world of hurt. That is true even for a seriously bad cat like Zhou. Highly recommended for fans of film noir and Gwei, Wild Goose Lake opens this Friday (3/6) in New York, at Film Forum.