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白日焰火 (2014)
Black Coal, Thin Ice

Reviewed by: ororama
Date: 07/11/2020

Body parts are found in coal shipments throughout Heilongjiang Province in 1999 in Black Coal, Thin Ice, causing police to suspect a gang of serial killers. A possible victim is identified through his identification card, but an arrest goes wrong and the case remains unsolved. In 2004 it appears that similar killings have started again, and the original detectives in charge of the case are determined to atone for their failure. Detective Wang, who has been promoted, is assigned to the case, and former Detective Zhang Zili is now a security guard who is drunk every night and hung over at work every morning. Zhang seeks redemption by working unofficially on the case. They see echoes of their case from five years before in the disposal of the body parts of the new victims and in the relationship of the new victims to the widow of the victim identified in the original case. They are forced to reassess the facts that let them conclude that they understood what had happened five years before.

Black Coal, Thin Ice provides an interesting look at how Chinese police operate. They are efficient at collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and closing cases, but expect suspects to peacefully surrender and confess when caught, not run or fight. They do their job, but don't seem to give much thought to the meaning of their work.

Zhang is a better detective after his return than he was while he actually had the position. He begins to think outside the box, considering unexpected possibilities in the crimes, motives and suspects, and begins to think about the meaning of the crimes and of his work.

Liao Fan is excellent as Zhang, remaining emotionally controlled when not drinking, but gradually revealing his intensity and determination.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is an intriguing example of the neo-noir film, using an unusual investigation of unusual crimes to illuminate the existence of people living life on the margins in China. It stays cool on an emotional level, but opens up unexpected areas for examination and reflection.