Movie Review: Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火) (Repost for Radio 4 Review)


I learned something new today. Film festival juries are not impartial.

I just attended a private screening of the new Chinese film, BLACK COAL, THIN ICE. This is the film that won both the Golden Bear (for Best Film) and the Silver Bear (for Best Actor) at this year’s Berlinale. I was really looking forward to this film. I was expecting greatness — Zhang Yimou greatness. After all, how many films have won both of these prestigious awards? I’ll have to check and get back to you. I’ll bet that in the festival’s 60-odd years of existence, it’s only happened a handful of times if at all.

Unfortunately, what I saw was garbage. Absolute garbage. There is no way that this could have been the best film in Berlin. If it was, then the other films must have really been awful. And if that’s the case, then the people on the festival’s film selection committee should be shot for doing such a poor job.

I would like to believe that this film had some real competition. If so, then the jury made a political decision by choosing this film as the winner – twice. After all, China is where the money is. If a Chinese film wins in Berlin, Chinese money will flow into the German film industry, or to whichever countries were represented on the jury. Forgive me for being so cynical but I can’t understand it any other way. That’s how undeserving this film is.

The film takes place in gritty Harbin in 1999. A number of body parts are turning up in coal processing factories throughout the province. When an ID card is found at one of the factories, newly divorced detective Zhang must inform a lovely young woman who works at a dry cleaners that her husband is dead. Two men are picked up for questioning but the arrest gets bungled and two rather incompetent cops are killed in the line of duty.

Fast forward to 2004 and detective Zhang has left that department, or perhaps he was bounced out of the force for the botched arrest five years earlier. In any case, he’s become an alcoholic. The case is still open and the police suspect that the widow is somehow involved. Zhang inserts himself into the investigation and single-handedly sets out to solve the crime. Along the way, a few more people are killed, he goes on a date with the widow, and he tracks down the owner of a mysterious leather coat, which leads him to the killer.

On the surface this sounds like it should be a good film. Should be but isn’t. There are great scenes that only people who know China would appreciate — ballroom dancing, watermelon eating, poor annunciation and spitting, to name some of them — but the acting is so wooden it’s like watching a bad Chinese movie from the 70s. Character development is non-existent. We don’t develop emotional bonds with any of the characters. Well, maybe the owner of the dry cleaners. He did sport a really awful toupee. Camera work is nothing special. Colour? Grey, grey and more grey. Film gris? Garbage, I tell you. Garbage!

Give this film a miss… or watch it and rage against the film industry machine.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 39:00.)

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