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Friday, 10 October 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

As mentioned last week the London Film Festival is now in full swing. There wasn't much that immediately caught our attention and we eventually settled on seven movies -- from yesterday's choice above through the weekend of the l8th-l9th. So you'll get one review today, four next Friday, and the final two the following Friday. I just hope the next six movies engage me rather more than this Chinese one did.

I guess we chose it, not just because it was a Berlin Golden Bear winner, but also because it sounded something of an oddball and not at all the sort of film that one associates with the typical Chinese fare. With its talk of various body parts turning up on industrial conveyor belts in different parts of the country and the suggestion that a serial murderer might be at large, it seemed more than a little promising. Unfortunately despite some bravura sequences, the tale does not quite hold together nor survive its many longueurs in the telling.

Writer-director Diao Yinan achieves a fairly stylish production and some interesting wintry scenery, but not a completely coherent story. Our policeman hero Zhang is invalided off the force after being wounded during a spectacularly bungled arrest and finds his solace in the bottle. From 1999 when the tale begins, we travel with him through a long tunnel and emerge five years later for the mystery's continuation. No longer a cop, he is still fascinated by the reappearance of body parts, in this instance with ice skates attached. All of the victims seem to link to the widow of the first corpse five years back, a comely lass working in a local laundry; he becomes obsessed with her and her possible role in these macabre murders. The explanations when they come are a little out of left field and not very satisfying, especially since to my Western eye both the hero and the 'maybe' villain looked pretty much the same. The final arrest is accompanied by a dazzling display of fireworks, for no apparent reason. The movie therefore ends in this blaze of glory forcing the viewer to ignore much of what has inexplicably come before. Quirky, yes. An unusual look at Chinese small-town life, yes. But gripping film-making, no.

Actually I should like to close by mentioning my most enjoyable discovery of the past week -- the Douglas Fairbanks 1922 silent version of "Robin Hood", which I'd not seen before. Apart from Fairbanks' fabled athleticism and the interesting casting of Wallace Beery as King Richard (as bulky and bawdy as the usual Beery persona) and Alan Hale in the role of Little John (the same role he played in the splendid 1938 Errol Flynn version), this long (133 minutes) production had the most extraordinary sets, costumes, literally cast of 1000s, and attention to detail that could put most modern film-making to shame. Each frame, with its inky blacks, wonderful tinting, and elaborate set design made a series of aesthetically pleasing stills, which combined into a truly magnificent and exciting whole. A masterpiece!      
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