Like the waters lapping up against the shores of its murky titular setting, Diao Yinan’s fugitive thriller The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui) is a film that doesn’t hit you like a tidal wave as much as it gradually washes over you, leaving in its wake a series of memorable set-pieces and a dense, dark web of violence and fatality.
On its surface, this craftily made if sometimes opaque fourth feature by the director of Berlin Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice tackles the genre in familiar ways: There’s the gangster on the run, the femme fatale at his side and the cops and bad guys trying to do them in. Film noir classics like Dark Passage, You Only Live Once and They Live By Night come to mind, most evidently in Diao’s pitch-black vision of a place where none of the characters will make it out unscathed.
A bleak and sharply made film noir set in gritty modern China.
But beyond its archetypal scenario, which can be hard to follow in spots, especially during the pic’s layered first hour, Diao paints a greater, even darker portrait of contemporary China as a vast land of exploitation and criminality — from the prostitutes eking out a living on the lakeshore to the bands of thieves taking each other out for territory to the innocent victims who get caught up in the crossfire.
Location — in this case the central Chinese capital of Wuhan and the many lakes surrounding it — is everything in a movie that progresses from one eye-opening setting to the next, pitting its doomed couple against a backdrop of rain-soaked streets, alleyways, underpasses, sweatshops, flea markets, dimly lit housing blocks and dingy 10-Yuan restaurants where you can slurp down a bowl of noodles before catching a bullet in the gut.
Shifting between different time frames and a handful of characters, The Wild Goose Lake follows man-of-few-words Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), a mid-level gang boss who was just released from jail and finds himself primed to head right back inside after a meeting with fellow bandits turns sour, resulting in several injuries and the death of a cop.
Trying to hide out while recovering from his wounds — Zhou seems to be bleeding throughout the entire film — he meets up with Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei, who starred in Black Coal, Thin Ice), a hooker (or “bather,” as they are referred to at the lake) who works for his boss, Hua Hua (Qi Dao), and may have been sent there to help Zhou out, or else to give him up for a hefty ransom.
Diao jumps around a lot in the movie’s early sections, at times confusingly so, as he reveals how Zhou and Liu managed to fall into their current mess, and why all of greater Wuhan (population 19 million) seems to be coming after them. But despite some narrative congestion, we basically grasp what’s going on by the time the big guns — and bats and knives, and, in one scene of giddy, gory violence, an umbrella — come out.
Each action sequence allows Diao to make excellent use of his diverse range of locations, which cinematographer Dong Jinsong (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) captures in fifty shades of brown and black, using neon streetlamps or signs to illuminate the landscape. In one memorable sequence, gunfire bursts forth near an outdoor dance party (scored to the ’70s disco jam “Rasputin”), with the dancers, whose shoes are lined with LED lights, scattering like fireflies into the night as the shots ring out around them.
That scene is followed by a chain of other set-pieces, turning the movie into one long, creeping and increasingly deadly pursuit. Black Coal, Thin Ice had a similar premise, and like that gritty film noir, Diao’s take on the genre here is extremely unclean and entirely unromantic. For instance, you may think, at first blush, that Zhou and Liu will wind up falling in love and trying to run off together, which is how things tend to play out in this kind of story. And yet the only scene of true physical contact or passion (if you can call it that) between them involves Liu performing fellatio on Zhou as they hide out on a rowboat, then promptly spitting a gob of his semen over the side.
Which isn’t to say that The Wild Goose Lake is entirely bleak, even if it seems obvious from the very first shot that Zhou’s number is up. (In what good film noir does the fugitive ever escape?) And yet Liu, as well as Zhou’s wife, Yang Shujun (Wan Qian), who gets sucked into the crime wave as well, eventually emerge as a pair of disabused if shrewd characters in a world where everyone — cops, crooks and all of those in between — winds up being victimized in one way or another, women even more so than men. If the two hope to somehow make it out of the gloomy, troubled waters of Diao’s modern-day China, then they will need to shine a light through the darkness.
Production companies: Green Ray Films (Shanghai) Co., Ltd., Maisong Entertainment Investment (Shanghai) Co., Ltd.
Cast: Hu Ge, Gwei Lun Mei, Laio Fan, Wan Quian, Qi Dao, Huang Jue, Zheng Meihuizi, Zhang Yicong, Chen Yongzhong
Director-screenwriter: Diao Yinan
Producer: Shen Yang
Director of photography: Dong Jinsong
Production designer: Liu Qiang
Costume designers: Liu Giang, Li Hua
Editors: Kong Jinlei, Matthieu Laclau
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Memento Films International