‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’ – Chinese noir on MUBI

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, 2014), set against the chilly backdrop of China’s northern coal country in the depths of winter, takes an atmospheric approach to the shadowy murder mystery.

Liao Fan stars as Zhang, a police detective investigating the case of a dismembered corpse found in the coal on the conveyer belt of a local factory. After the case goes sideways, ending in a violent shoot-out that leaves four dead, the film jumps ahead five years to find Zhang a disgraced drunk working as a security guard at the factory where remains are once again discovered on the coal chutes. He conducts his own investigation focused on the widow of the first victim, who has ties to the new victims as well, and becomes romantically involved with this woman who may be innocent victim or cold-blooded murderer.

Filmmaker Diao Yinan previously made the acclaimed Uniform (2003), a small, sly film with a similar sensibility, but this film has a much greater scope and size. The industrial setting and the observation of life and work in this isolated factory town give the film a quality of social realism while the atmosphere and attitude, not to mention the compromised characters, suggest the Chinese answer to film noir. There’s a grim sense of humor running under it that keeps the audience off balance as the plot twists with further revelations.

Black Coal, Thin Ice won the top award at the Berlin Film Festival and had a limited release in the U.S. Though it’s not well known, it is a well-made drama that offers a perspective on life in China not often seen on the screen through the course of a compelling murder mystery.

In Mandarin with English subtitles.

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Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Black Coal, Thin Ice [Blu-ray]
Black Coal, Thin Ice [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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