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To have made one of the most sublimely beautiful urban-set movies of a decade is a sign of talent. To have made two of them - maybe literally the two best-looking movies about cities of the whole of the 2010s - is a sign of outright genius. And that's the place where director Diao Yi'nan has found himself. After his third feature, the Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice in 2014, I was optimistic to see whatever he might end up making next; after The Wild Goose Lake, which played in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, I am fully in love. And to be fair, that love deserves to be spread around a bit: both of the films in question were shot by Dong Jingsong (as were Diao's first two features) whose ability to sparingly infuse neon into muddy black urban nights in this film makes it my favorite-looking movie released in the United States in 2020 by a ridiculously lopsided margin.

The Wild Goose Lake, a very different title altogether than the Chinese Meeting at the South Train Station, is a gangster neo-noir, and it takes as its topic one of the most reliable chestnuts that film noir has to offer: a doomed man's long night of the soul. Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a high-ranking member of one of two dueling motorcycle-thief gangs operating out of Wuhan - a city that means very different things now than it did when the film premiered in May 2019, but to the film, it's mostly an example of the kind of rapidly-growing, instantly-anonymous city center springing up all over China in the last few decades, a place that arrived at lonely atomised anomie much too quickly for everyone living there to cope with it. Zhou is, accordingly, mostly just a lost soul in a massive pile of them, recently released from prison and quick to return to his dissolute ways.

We meet him in the film's perfect opening scene, a meeting at a train station - the southern one, presumably - on a rain-drenched, neon-soaked night, when Zhou is approached by a woman he wasn't waiting for, a local prostitute named Liu Alai (Gwei Lun-Mei). She's a go-between; Zhou is on the run from the cops, and he wants his wife, Yang Shujun (Wan Qian) to get the reward money for turning him in. Liu, one of the only people in Zhou's sphere of influence who is under the cops' radar, is the only person who can make this happen for him.

What follows is a twisty narrative of flashbacks with other flashbacks nested inside of them, and unmarked changes in perspective, all catching us up on how Zhou got to this point - it involves being implicated in both the florid decapitation of a rival gang member and then the accidental shooting death of a cop, on a night already charged up with gang tension over turf rights - and moving him forward through this very bleak night. There are no surprises in store; the wanton re-arranging of the story is the only thing in Diao's script that's even a little bit fresh, and it's as much of a distraction as a strength. But The Wild Goose Lake isn't looking to be fresh as a narrative; in best noir fashion, the story it tells seems to be over even before it starts, with the hanging question never "will Zhou get out of this okay?" but "will he be able to manage staving off his doom long enough to get this one halfway decent thing handled?" The film is much less invested in telling a story than in creating a delirious, overpowering mood, and this it does to superb effect basically from the first shot.

Diao isn't shy about borrowing what he knows will work: as Zhou and Liu navigate the smoky, rainy night, landing at one point in a grimy, fluorescent-lit restaurant, the lifts from Wong Kar-wai become so overt that one has to assume that Diao is hoping we'll notice (besides, with the actual Wong Kar-wai having abdicated his throne, there's no harm in anointing a pretender Wong Kar-wai). And this goes beyond the lighting, and the rain, and the unapologetic use of sexy, nihilistic cigarette smoking throughout the film; even the baggy fuschia top that Liu wears throughout the film has that kind of vibe of foggy, half-asleep romanticism, and if I were going to pick a third person most responsible for the film's success after Diao and Dong, it would be costume designer Li Hua, (who in looking over her career, has had maybe the best decade of anyone working in cinema: she has four credits as a costume designer or assistant, and they're all drop-dead gorgeous examples of the craft: A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart, Long Day's Journey into Night, and this).

This isn't the only specific kind of atmosphere Diao and company aim for over the course of the movie's two hours. The movie also dabbles in exactly the same flavor of hyper-real neon-colored chiaroscuro noir lighting that Black Coal, Thin Ice used for its nighttime scenes, a precise re-creation of the hot glow of a city after dark that almost feels surreal in its sensory overload (or just in its poetry, as in a sequence involving a group of dancers with glowstick tubing on the soles of their shoes. And it covers other styles in-between including a dreamy horror movie interlude at a zoo, when  bright flashes of stark white light illuminate the animals like creatures of a nightmare, especially with the soundtrack loudly blaring forth with the roar of a tiger even as we see other species.

The connective tissue between all of these seems to be, simply, the otherworldliness of the city after dark: sometimes beautiful, sometimes horribly dingy and flat, sometimes painfully lonely. And this is what gets us back to the human story at the center of it all: while nobody would ever mistake The Wild Goose Lake for a psychologically resonant character drama, Hu, Gwei, and Wan are all very good at keeping us reminded of the essential melancholy of the scenario, the attempt to do right and be human even when that's simply not possible under adverse circumstances. The film feels like a grab bag of visual conceits, of moods, of genres ranging from indie romance to splatter horror (the film has one of the most playful gore-based gags of the year, above and beyond the decapitation). And yet, it all hangs together, and it's the actors, in the face of all that luxurious style, who make that happen, especially Hu and his miserable hangdog look. It's just enough to give the film enough substance for its style to have something to bite into, and to give its perfect depiction of the inhumanity of an unfeeling city feel like it actually matters.