Black Coal, Thin Ice ★★★

Most of what I've read about Black Coal, Thin Ice consists of "meh" reactions; people seem fairly irritable about it beating out Boyhood for top prize at Berlin, which really isn't a reasoned reaction that'll make sense historically. Because the business and criticism sides of film writing rarely talk to each other, I didn't realize until after seeing it that Black Coal, Thin Ice represents a potential seismic shift in Chinese cinema (it certainly doesn't play that ambitiously). Dinan is bullish on merging arthouse technique (that sounds reductive, but it's his terminology pretty much) with mainstream genre plotting to attract more audiences; the film exceeded modest commercial expectations and is the year's 17th-highest grosser at home. The director believes censorship is easing up ("things are already much easier now than before") and wants China to conquer the world: "We don't want to be liked just because we are being overtly politically critical, or just because we are showing a dark side of society. [...] We want to conquer you with beauty and with our Eastern sensibilities." [!] He posits that the authorities are easing up because "they don't want the masses to watch films with little cultural value. It can't all be like Where Are We Going, Dad?" (the second-highest grossing film of the year, spun off from a reality TV show featuring celebrity dads and their kids on road trips. As the BBC reports, "the fathers can be seen taking their children to a wildlife park, making dumplings and brushing their pets' teeth.")

If this is crossover Chinese arthouse cinema that colludes with the censors, things could be a lot worse national cinema-wise (and have been). Diao's a true eccentric, burlesquing the last shot of Beau Travail at extended length, then going on and on and on to diminishing returns before winding up unexpectedly with a winningly anarchic ending that in no way emerges linearly from what came before. The opening intercuts construction activity with a couple in a hotel room progressing from cards to intercourse: it'd be simple/stupid enough to parallel two types of hammering away, but Diao ups the ante when he tosses the camera upside down as it's displaced by the tractor. It's an unexpected curlicue, and there are a gratifying amount of those.

Violence emerges suddenly and unexpectedly; the big opening scene is a truly surprising stunner, the best of its kind since Caché, though the banal buildup is admittedly kind of showy. Safely pushed back to 1999 and 2004, the sudden eruptions (unfolding seemingly without intervention from the authorities, who barely refrain from exacerbating and contributing to it) place this on a parallel track with A Touch Of Sin, though without Jia's righteous clarity or nationally systematic diagnosis (and I don't think it's a coincidence that this got public exhibition at home, while Sin didn't as far as I can tell). Diao muddles the motivations so many times that generic greed, materialism, sexual exploitation and rapaciousness are the ultimate culprits, a watery culpability grafted unconvincingly onto a murder investigation with a routine black widow at its heart. Frequent interjections of unexpected comedy (including old staples like falling down/slipping and sliding on ice) and police cameraderie are indebted to Memories Of Murder, though without its epic scope or sense of broader social/historical significance. After West Of The Tracks, opening scenes in factories seem far too clean, grandiose and well-organized, and tonal missteps become as frequent as good decisions. Still, Diao has good, unexpected setpieces and a flair for unexpected movements; he seems worth keeping up with, even quite apart from the narrative of his commercial/collaborative trajectory.