January 27, 2023

Black Coal Thin Ice Review – A Chinese thriller that lacks thrills

Black Coal, Thin Ice is set amongst the detectives of a small town in Northern China in the early 2000s. Written and directed by Diao Yinan it concerns multiple murders that occur over a five year period. Set up as a thriller, it lacks excitement.

To mention that the first scene shows a severed hand moving along conveyor belts at a coal mine suggests the film will be gruesome. Actually it isn’t. Although body parts are being found at processing plants across the area this is merely background information. Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) was a policeman at the time of the first murder. Several years later he is a security guard when the human bits start being found. He tries to solve the case, finding it revolves around Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei) an employee at a local dry-cleaners.

Unlikely though it is, as he was a detective in the past Zili is accepted into the current detectives’ inner circle. They hang around eating water melon and discussing the case, sometimes with lines that appear to be from a comedy – They were wearing skates, one man says seriously,  I think they were killed whilst ice-skating. There are moments of acting that also appear to be from a different non-realist film. During a fight scene one detective launches himself at a criminal with the sort of OTT enthusiasm that suggests a large crash mat was just off-camera. The bad-back acting that results is unconvincing.

As a thriller it doesn’t work. We don’t know the victims, we don’t know the protagonists. We care about no one. There are few suspects and the femme fatale is about as fatale as a slap with a wet fish. The film takes a long time to get to the final explanation and then makes the mistake of carrying on too long afterwards. The attitude to women is unpleasant, and as Zili alludes to in one line, better DNA testing would make the whole shebang virtually irrelevant.

The film’s pale palette is attractive but if a similarly drearily-plotted film pitched up from a Western country it is hard to see it being selected for the London Film Festival. It does contain shots of low caste life in China and the cultural documentary is its strongest point. But too much of the 109 minutes is shots of dry cleaners, old coats and run-down buildings.

Verdict: Avoid – unless you want to practise your Mandarin or see a slow glimpse of lowly Chinese life.

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