There is perhaps not a single image from The Wild Goose Lake that captures Diao Yinan’s explosive fourth feature than the shot from the trailer that reveals a transparent umbrella getting splattered with vibrantly red blood. His first feature since his Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice deals once again with the underbelly of polite society. But this time around, Yinan crafts an even bleaker vision while ramping up the violence. However, he’s still having fun with the construction of his zig-zagging tale of crime and deception, even when his characters are pushed to the breaking point.
Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a lowly motorbike thief who triggers a competition between his crew and a rival gang of thieves at a convention on how to steal motorcycle parts for money, when a fight breaks out over territory. After the self-proclaimed “Olympics of theft” ends up with one of his allies dead by forklift decapitation and himself badly wounded, he goes on the run for unintentionally shooting two police officers in the chaos of the night. The entire area is shut down and flooded with patrolmen, though Zhou evades detection. His goal is for his estranged wife to turn him in for the cash reward as payback for the way he’s ignored her for the past several years. The situation is complicated when the mysterious “bathing beauty” (read: prostitute) Liu Aiai (Gwen Lun Mei) sees the cash reward as a way to escape her miserable life. As the plot unfurls, it’s unclear until the very end as to who will receive the bounty money placed on Zhou’s head.
The story line is complicated and overplotted, but that’s beside the point. At any rate, it’s not the most important element Yinan focuses on. What he excels at, beyond anything else, is creating the atmosphere of noir. The film is packed with eye-catching imagery from DP Don Jinsong, who flexes off his muscles. He drenches the seedy underworld with shadows and neon, and turns a nighttime police search of the local zoo into a stunning display of animal eyes and faces caught for a moment by flashlights. Even more masterful is a showdown on train-tracks where the only sources of light are the plainclothes cops’ LED-light up sneakers. It’s a visually stunning film dripping with color and imaginative framing.
The Wild Goose Lake‘s pleasures come from the thrills of noir. It openly references old masterpieces of the genre and wears its inspirations (such as films like M and North by Northwest) on its sleeve with pride. Yinan’s collage of cinema paints the underworld of China as the most perfect place for noir stories anywhere in the world. There’s nothing that more perfectly encapsulates the very essence of noir than a pivotal scene of Zhou and Liu on a boat. She goes down on him, and then lunges her head over the boat to spit out his semen into the dark waters of the lake. Night and sex: that’s what noir is.
The Wild Goose Lake screened at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Film Movement will release the film in the coming months