The Wild Goose Lake
Following a crime boss on the run, this patient Chinese gangster flick is simply gorgeous to look at from start to finish.
December 05, 2019
If you only watch one sultry, sprawling, neon-lit Chinese film noir this year — one where umbrellas are deployed as lethal weapons, zoo animals bear witness to a shootout and strangers dance in the street in glowing sneakers to Boney M's 'Rasputin' — make it The Wild Goose Lake. To be fair, no other feature will match that exact description anytime soon. No other movie will make a routine police search of a half-demolished building look like a real-world diorama, either, or watch as a character turns the tricky art of self-bandaging into an acrobatic performance. From its yellow-tinted opening frames, where two strangers meet outside a train station in drizzling rain, Diao Yinan's first film since 2014's acclaimed Black Coal, Thin Ice firmly carves its own visual niche. That's one of the evocatively shot gangster flick's charms.
Spread across speedy motorcycle chases and frenetic underground brawls, too, these eye-catching images all tell the story of mob heavy Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) and 'bathing beauty' Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei). Following a mass underworld meetup to discuss stealing techniques, an impromptu contest dubbed "the Olympic Games of thievery" and the accidental shooting of a cop, he's on the run in the titular area. Both the law and fellow criminals are on his trail, and a ¥300,000 bounty is on his head. She's been dispatched as Zhou's escort by her gang-affiliated boss Huahua (Qi Dao) — and although she's just supposed to deliver messages and take the fleeing gangster where he needs to go, Liu is also a sex worker who plies her trade by the water. In flashbacks, the movie fleshes out their intertwined tales, including why Liu is the one meeting Zhou instead of his estranged wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian).
Visually, The Wild Goose Lake leaves a continued imprint; however there's a boilerplate flavour to Diao's script. After Black Coal, Thin Ice — another stylish, crime-filled neo-noir brimming with complex motives and ample duplicity — it almost seems like the filmmaker is painting by numbers in a narrative sense. He's certainly playing in a well-populated field, with no shortage of high-profile Chinese releases delving into the country's seedy underbelly of late (as seen in Jia Zhangke's Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night). And yet, as recognisable as much of The Wild Goose Lake's story appears, it never feels like it's sending viewers on either a routine journey or a wild goose chase. Rather, that air of familiarity ripples with purpose and meaning. Indeed, the fact that these kinds of Chinese tales keep popping up and using the nation's unseemly side as a way of tackling societal uncertainty, restlessness and change makes a clear statement.
Diao isn't yelling his views at anyone, though, or even conveying as strong a message about the state of his country as he did with his last film. Largely, he uses his narrative as the connective tissue that holds his stunning visuals together. If the writer/director and his returning cinematographer Dong Jinsong had planned out each strikingly shot and choreographed set-piece, then built a story around them, it wouldn't come as a surprise. The Wild Goose Lake is far more textured than a movie made in such a way ever could be, but its imagery is still the undoubted star of the show. If Nicolas Winding Refn was to splash his usual creative trademarks across a China-set gangster flick as a companion piece to the Los Angeles-based Drive and the Bangkok-set Only God Forgives, the end result wouldn't look as inky yet inescapably luminous as Diao's darkly gorgeous piece of cinema.
With such alluring pictures flickering across the screen — including so many vivid amber and pink lights casting shadows across murky alleyways and rooms that the overall look should get repetitive, but doesn't — it's no wonder that Diao paces the film patiently. He gives audiences plenty of chances to soak in The Wild Goose Lake's sights, naturally. In taking his time to unfurl the feature's tale, he also conveys an apt sense of inertia as Zhou runs, Liu follows, both the cops and other crims try to track their every move, but no one ever really goes anywhere. And, in the process, he fittingly tasks his cast with giving quiet yet still expressive performances. This is the type of movie where, when dialogue is uttered, it usually says less far less than a look, a gesture or an actor's posture. Viewers don't get to know the film's characters as deeply as we could've, but it's still a very canny approach — with a feature this arresting, the audience is luxuriating in every inch of every frame from start to finish.