Hiding in the shadows of a bus shelter, career criminal Zhou (Hu Ge) meets the mysterious Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei). He was expecting his wife. She insists she has come on her behalf. Across the road from a police station, and wanted for murder, Zhou recounts the events that brought him to his current predicament – on the run along the shores of the lawless Wild Goose Lake.
Diao Yinan’s previous neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) was a suspenseful masterwork of brooding crime cinema. This new follow-up, finally hitting screens a full five years later, perhaps does not reach the atmospheric and character-filled heights of its predecessor, but it does solidify Diao’s reputation as one of China’s best contemporary directors. This film has style, mood and menace to spare and is a hugely enjoyable slice of pulp entertainment.
Given the film’s structure – which partly involves a non-linear narrative – it is best to approach The Wild Goose Lake with as little knowledge of what happens as possible. That, of course, makes it a more difficult film to review; I am unable to describe the stand-out moments or much of the manner in which the story plays out. Diao’s handling of key set pieces is absolutely superb, rivaling even that of Hong Kong director Johnnie To. He has a remarkable gift of exploiting a location to make each action or chase sequence feel dynamic or unique. His use of color is extraordinary: this is a film that vividly pops off the screen with a deliberately non-realistic and lurid aesthetic. It accentuates the pulpy feel of the story and characters.
The story is complex enough that it becomes quite hard to pin down the allegiances of the leading characters. The narrative twists and turns, keeping things suspenseful throughout. What the film perhaps lacks compared to Black Coal, Thin Ice is a sufficient level of emotional depth. There is still a level of complexity among the characters, but it feels more like pop entertainment than the more moody and restrained feel of the earlier film.
Hu, known in China primarily as a television star, gives a superbly measured performance as Zhou. He has a relentless, driven quality that encourages the viewer to root for him to succeed in his mission. Gwei, who played one of the leads for Diao in Black Coal, Thin Ice inhabits a very different character here: nervous, unsettled, and difficult to fully trust. Much of the noir tone of the film is balanced between these characters, and they are paired together very well on screen. Laio Fan, another Black Coal alumni, is wonderfully level-headed as the police inspector dispatched to hunt Zhou down. There is a beautiful pair of scene early into the film in which supervisors assign their staff in pairs to different neighborhoods of the city. In the first scene it is a gang of thieves. In the second, it’s the local police force. The similarities are striking and deliberate.
Diao has really managed to establish a strong reputation with his last two films. His works are a genuine asset to Chinese genre cinema: smart, stylish, and hugely entertaining. Regardless of a film’s genre or content, with Diao’s name attached as director it is automatically a must-see.
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.