Black Coal, Thin Ice, by Diao Yinan

Black Coal, Thin Ice, by Diao Yinan

In short: a film narrated in a gray and sometimes sordid atmosphere, in a dark winter, of climate and spirit, which presents a mystery in which the viewer is gradually seduced.

In an eminently mining region, human limbs begin to appear in different shipments of coal, each of them located far enough away to make it impossible that the same person has brought them there. The first police investigations get bogged down in a violent incident that kills the first witnesses. After this begins (or continues) the moral decay of the protagonist (Zhang Zili, played by Fan Liao, who won the best actor award at the Berlin Film Festival and other Asian festivals for this performance), who takes to drink, quits the police, and only half works as a guard in a company. Five years later, another couple of cases come to the attention of his friend and former colleague Wang, encouraging Zhang Zili to continue investigating the case that changed his life.

The killers all seem to have some connection to the first victim’s widow, Mrs. Wu, who works in a laundry. Zhang shows up at the laundry, where Wu leads a miserable life, trying to escape the harassment of her boss, but nothing is what it seems and the film unfolds amid successive surprises that only highlight the coldness with which people can put an end to other people’s lives.

In the midst of one of Heilongjiang province’s icy winters, with the streets covered in snow and the sun only a pale and absent glow, the viewer is taken into an environment that is also morally gray in itself, in which the reflection of any miserable little shop puts the only specks of poetry that the narrative allows itself. How many times have I experienced a similar sensation! How many times have I felt that the mere iridescent reflection of the ever-red advertisement of a lonely store filled the night of a gray city with poetry!

The ex-cop clings like a dog to any clue, and little by little he creates the moment when they will all end up fitting, but first many things have to happen, which test at every moment, the moral integrity of each of the people involved in this plot.

The director builds his own universe in which he fits characters that fit perfectly, or rather, he appropriates that gray universe of the cities of northern China to turn it into the scene of these also gray lives, of icy feelings. Not in vain, the whole film takes place in the cold winter that contrasts with the summer heat present before starting the long road of the investigation.

The characters act, generally alone.They have no need to tell anyone about their plans, and the viewer sees them moving from one place to another, in the snowy city, in the gray trains that lead nowhere, trying to guess their intentions, their projects, if they are still investigating the case of the dismembered corpses, or if they are living a deaf love story. The protagonists do not embody any moral idealization either, they are neither good nor bad, or they are both at the same time, and they can risk their lives trying to solve a judicial case, or mock those around them with promises that are left in suspense, and exercises of power devoid of morality.

In the end all the mysteries are resolved, but it is not a victory for a moral stance, it is simply part of the development of the story, part of the development of life in this universe that is hostile to all who approach it.

Fan Liao’s performance is magnificent, his ghostly movements in the lonely nights of the city emphasize his loneliness, his ignorance of the forces that move the world and mark people’s lives without giving them a choice. Not for nothing did his companions die in a few seconds during a seemingly routine identification.
The very Chinese title «Fireworks in Daylight» 白日焰火 clearly shows the character of deception that everything surrounding the film has. Also remarkable is the stunning performance by Gwei Lun-Mei, who, with that rare beauty that characterizes her, is indeed a woman who brings down cities.

The film won the Silver Bear for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014, when Fan Liao also picked up the Best Actor award.

Technical details:
English title: Black Coal, Thin Ice.
Year: 2014
Length: 1:50 m.
Directed by Diao Yinan
Screenplay by Diao Yinnan
Director of Photography: Dong Jingsong
Fan Liao as Zhang Zili
Gwei Lun-Mei as Wu Zhizhen
Wang Xuebing as Liang Zhijun
Wang Jingchun as Rong Rong

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Black Coal, Thin Ice, by Diao Yinan," in Ethnic China, 9 mayo 2021,

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