Film Review: Black Coal, Thin Ice

By Lukas Vojacek

The last piece that served as a grand finale of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in Glasgow was mysterious crime drama Black Coal, Thin Ice, written and directed by reputable filmmaker Yi’nan Diao. This film was originally released in China six years ago and won several prestigious awards, including the Golden Bear at the International Film Festival in Berlin 2014. Is it worth of your attention?


The story takes place in a small unattractive town in northern China in 1999. The local police officer Zhang (Fan Liao) is unsuccessfully hunting down a serial killer who is hiding the bodies of his victims into the carriages of coal. Failed attempt to arrest the suspect eventually ends detective’s career. Five years later, disgraced Zhang is working as a security guard in a factory and trying to drown his shame in alcohol, when the mutilated corpses start to appear again. The only lead the investigator have seems to be linked to a beautiful and mysterious widow (Lun-Mei Kwei) …


Black Coal, Thin Ice is a very bizarre and unpredictable movie that vacillates between gloomy thriller, film noir, tragic love story, social drama, and dark comedy. The director is interestingly playing with colours, rhythm and long camera shots. The overall atmosphere of cold Chinese hick town that is full of neon lights and hideous industrial buildings is just brilliant and strongly resembles the style of David Fincher’s Se7en. The authentic image is also supported by convincing soundtrack.


Most of the characters are repulsive, mirroring the town they live in. The actors are more than convincing. Especially Fan Liao, who stands out as an unconventional anti-hero. His unbalanced always-drunk solitary detective is almost like a Chinese version of Harry Hole (the main character from the popular Norwegian crime novels by Jo Nesbø). Maybe it was just my impression, but in certain parts of the film the audience can even feel some hidden criticism of the Chinese political regime. The local countryside is shown as a poor and miserable place, where people are struggling to find a decent job and the authorities are failing to do their duties.


The slow-paced story with not many dialogues is sometimes interrupted by an unexpected joke (the bike theft), a Tarantino-like explicit violent twist (bloody shoot-out at the beginning of the movie), or an outlandish sequence that, at least for an average Western spectator does not make any sense (for example, a scene with a horse). However, the climax of the film was little bit disappointing. After many shocking turns that screenwriter made, the apprehension of the murderer is unsurprising and simple. Moreover, the epilogue afterwards seems completely unnecessary.



To conclude, this Diao’s piece is a remarkable harsh crime drama that puts form above the content. The filmmaker successfully combines different genres, the methods of David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino and mix them up with his own unique style. The spine-chilling atmosphere of the industrial Chinese town and the actors’ performances are absolutely perfect. The storyline itself is nevertheless slightly underdone.