Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13 & 10/17
World premiere: 12 February, 2014, Berlin International Film Festival

It might have been filmed in color; it might have been filmed in China; it might have been filmed decades after of the essential cultural context of the post-WWII America; but other than those little things, Black Coal, Thin Ice is one of the most all-around perfect example of a film noir to have come out in years. True, any one of those elements is arguably an automatic disqualification, let alone all three, but with its beautiful but menacing cinematography, its portrayal of urban life as inherently prone to violence and moral decay, and its choice of protagonist is a drunk, slovenly ex-cop, plagued by memories of the case that got away, and given a chance to make things right at great personal cost. The tune is right even if the instruments are funny. And the great overriding theme of all the great films noirs - you are alone, nobody can be trusted, and the world around you is dying - is proudly on display in every beat of the darkly thrilling mystery that the film explores.

The opening is in 1999, when a dismembered body is found in coal-firing plants scattered all across a province; nobody can figure out how such a geographically expansive crime could have been committed, let alone who could have committed it, but cops Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) and Liang Zhijun (Wang Xuebing) doggedly track the killer anyway, and Zhang even thinks he has a solution of sorts. But a random run-in with some desperate thugs ends tragically, with Zhang dropping out and spending the next five years turning himself into the most dissolute reprobate he could manage. He only emerges when a series of copycat murders starts up, and he figures out quickly enough that the newly dead bodies share a connection to a dry cleaning proprietor named Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), who happens to be the beautiful, dark-eyed widow of the very same man who ended up distributed in coal bins throughout China. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that she has some secrets that need exploring, and it doesn't take a psychic to figure out that Zhang is going to end up fascinated with the enticing woman of mystery for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with solving a cold case or bringing the mad dismembering coal-obsessed killer to justice.

You could not possibly be generous enough to call any of what happens in Black Coal, Thin Ice original (incidentally, the original Chinese title translates to Daytime Fireworks, which suggests enormously different things relative to the film's content; writer-director Diao Yi'nan selected the titles for both languages). And while it's tempting to read into it some kind of sociological dissection of life in urban China, that would require us to overlook how much of the film's DNA stretches back to 1940s Los Angeles. But originality and social insight are both devilishly easy to overvalue: the justification for Black Coal, Thin Ice isn't that it's daring and meaningful and unprecedented in its complexity (though it would be nice for the Goldener Bär winner at Berlin to be at least one of those things, maybe), but that it's simply a really great version of a long-reliable stock type.

A really great version. If nothing else (and there's plenty else), it's one of the very best-shot films of 2014 (and if I hadn't just seen Timbuktu at the same film festival, I don't think I'd mess around with this ambivalent "one of the best" nonsense). Dong Jinsong, the cinematographer, has a small career to date, but he's clearly a name to keep looking out for: his work is an astonishing mix of classic noir chiaroscuro and glossy, sickly-glamorous candy-colored neon just absolutely everywhere. And while the film doesn't resort to anything as programmatic as color-coding, it's definitely the case that the colors haven't been chosen arbitrarily: there's a scene in a car where one character is lit in blue and red, another is all green, and the cumulative effect (beyond being spookily unreal) is blissfully, intuitively correct: coolness contrasting with rot. I have no idea what colors signify in Chinese culture, but to my Western eyes, it was a perfect little encapsulation of the warring psychologies in that car, and I loved it as much as I have loved any single piece of cinematic lighting all year.

The addition of expressionistic color to the film noir template is inspired, and probably the single most unique element of Black Coal, Thin Ice: in terms of how it structures its narrative, it is elegantly formulaic without stooping to be predictable. And this is a fine thing, in this genre of all genres; in presenting a fatal, deterministic world, the fact that the script falls into generally predetermined contours ends up strengthening our sense that this is not a world where individual people have much of a chance to do anything to change what's going anyway. Still, watching Diao take his characters through the paces is particularly thrilling. And the way that shots are repeated and slightly altered (sometimes by as simple a thing as seeing the same angle in daytime vs. nighttime) contributes still more to the sense of a ritual being acted out, beyond the characters.

Not everything is so strictly mired in this idea of the city as a shiny colored hell where your fate is already set: the messy, anarchic ending rather pointedly disputes that notion, for one, and so do the handful of scenes of startling violence (there is little action, and none of it graphic, in the film, but what's there is always jarring, even just a scene of a killer throwing body parts off a bridge). In other words, only moments of violence or chaos can upset the merciless order of this world. Not a comforting notion at all; it's not a comforting film, though. It's a diagnosis and exposition of a cruel world that stomps on humans and their humanity, and its visual beauty is also, frequently, unnatural and even a little gross: it is the beauty of a snake or a poisonous flower. It doesn't end with the pointless loss of the most deliberately nihilistic films noirs, and it even seems to warily toy around with the idea that "hope" is a thing that exists, somewhere. But goal #1 is still and always to confront the darkness of people and the society that births them, and no film has done that with more exquisite craftsmanship and captivating narrative tension in a long while.