Black Coal, Thin Ice

Brilliant Chinese crime thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (15) ***** surprisingly beat Boyhood to the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2014 but is entirely deserving of this late international release and recognition. 

It is, for example, superior to the grimly disappointing Mountains May Depart by acknowledged master of modern Chinese cinema Jia Zangke which was in competition at Cannes last month.

Set in a snowy provincial industrial mining town, it’s about a former police detective, Zhang Zili, unable to let go of a case that still haunts him, involving dismembered body parts turning up on coal conveyor belts and in noodle soup, and a mysteriously beautiful woman, Wu Zizhen, who works in the fabulously-named Rong Rong Laundry and dry cleaners.  “Every man connected to her winds up dead,” notes Zhang. 

Director Diao Yinan keeps it moving (and smoking) like a hard-boiled noir in the best 40s American tradition but laces the action with astutely ironic social comment and fascinating, almost surreal details – a shoot-out in a hairdresser’s, a horse tethered in a factory, a neon-lit dancehall, a noodle bus, an outdoor skating rink.

It’s really about the shifts in modern China, the changes in fashion, economy and tradition and the country’s brutal unsentimentality, its relentless grind forward leaving victims crushed and trailing behind. And it has marched over many to become one of my favourite films of the year.