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From Wuhan, without virus: Diao Yi’nan's 'The Wild Goose Lake'

A still from ‘The Wild Goose Lake’

A still from ‘The Wild Goose Lake’   | Photo Credit: bai_linghai

The dark side of the city is captured effectively in a noir film, that is is supremely stylish and punctuated by Kitano Takeshi-style bursts of ultra-violence

Wuhan, China, is nowadays best known as the epicentre of the Coronavirus, or Covid-19, to call it by its official name, but a film, made before these bleak times, effectively captures the dark side of the city. Like his contemporary Jia Zhangke, Diao Yi’nan is from China’s Shaanxi province, and also like him, he began his directing career as a chronicler of the region. Diao debuted with Uniform (2003), where, in a Shaanxi roiling with economic unrest, a young man leads a double life. The film won awards at Rotterdam and Vancouver.

Diao’s next film was Night Train (2007) about a widowed executioner in a prison who unwittingly strikes up a relationship with the husband of one of the executed prisoners. The film debuted at Cannes and went on to win awards at Buenos Aires, Warsaw and IndieLisboa. Unlike the prolific Jia, who has directed 26 features and shorts, Diao evidently likes to take his time. His next film arrived a good seven years later, in 2014. But what a film it is. Black Coal, Thin Ice, set in Heilongjiang province, is a pitch black, ice-cold, neon-lit detective thriller that reinvigorated the noir genre. The film won the Golden Bear at Berlin.

Pausing only to perform a key role in Jia’s Ash is Purest White (2018), Diao returned to noir with The Wild Goose Lake (2019), set in 2012. The titular, fictitious lake in Wuhan is the backdrop for a deliciously twisty plot where no one can be trusted. There is no snow like in Black Coal, Thin Ice, but there is plenty of neon and a lot of the film unspools in dim, poetic nights. The dialogue is entirely in the Wuhan dialect. Ge Hu plays Zhou Zenong, a motorcycle thief who is in deep trouble after killing a cop. Determined to make an example of Zhou, the Wuhan police offer a reward of 300,000 Yuan (approximately ₹31 lakh) towards his arrest. The local gangsters also covet the reward money and Zhou is a marked man. His aim is to secure the reward money for his estranged wife and son, and in this he seeks the help of Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei), a ‘bathing beauty’ (a euphemism for sex worker) by the lake.

The film is supremely stylish and punctuated by Kitano Takeshi style bursts of ultra-violence. Think Sonatine (1993) and drench it in neon noir and you’ll begin to get an idea of what Diao has achieved. The Wuhan that Diao depicts in the film is a far cry from the glittering ghost town you’ve seen in endless Coronavirus drone shots. What we see instead is a ramshackle, grubby sprawl, where, remarkably, Diao and his regular cinematographer Dong Jingsong find beauty. Black Coal, Thin Ice is a superior film as it isn’t as much of a slave to style as The Wild Goose Lake is, but I’m not complaining.

The Wild Goose Lake also debuted at Cannes, in competition for the Palme d’Or, and has been on an extended festival run since. It is now on its global theatrical release schedule. Diao says that his next film will be out in ‘two to three years’. Let’s hope he doesn’t make us wait longer.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 1:33:16 AM |

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