Mainland Chinese cinema was relatively late to film noir, especially in relation to Hong Kong and other Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, all of which have reshaped the genre in distinctive ways. But once a younger set of directors applied film noir tropes to their local circumstances, it became almost a national obsession. Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake has pretty much become the standard to which all Chinese noir will be compared until something better or more original comes along, but that seems unlikely owing to how thoroughly Diao has applied these tropes. It’s a pretty stunning achievement, even if it can sometimes feel like a trial.
The movie opens appropriately with rain pouring from a night sky over a neon-illuminated slice of urban decay. (Coincidentally, it happens to take place in pre-COVID Wuhan) Two people, partially hidden by shadows, meet and exchange what is obviously some kind of code. The man, Zhou (Hu Ge), is there waiting for his estranged wife, but the woman, Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), isn’t her. She’s a sex worker who nevertheless demands Zhou prove his identity. Zhou, it turns out, is an ex-con on the lam for killing a policeman by accident. Though he’s the leader of a gang of motorcycle thieves, he’s portrayed as a small cog in a larger crime machine, and his disastrous luck has made him the target not only of the authorities, but other gangsters. He now has a price on his head. Hints are circulated that Zhou’s ex-wife, hard up for cash, may be in on the bounty, and though Liu’s motives remain cryptic for quite a while, she and Zhou try to come up with a way of collecting the money for themselves.
But, of course, this is a noir, and one of the cliches of the genre is a moral reckoning for the antihero, so the pair’s scheme only makes their situation worse, at least for a while. Unlike Diao’s last noir, Black Coal, Thin Ice, The Wild Goose Lake wears its social criticism lightly, but it also incorporates its socioeconomic observations more deeply into the plot. The impressive chase scenes and wildly violent fight tableaux never feel gratuitous, but instead seem to grow organically out of a milieu where everyone looks restless and ready to explode. And while this aspect makes the film relentlessly watchable it also adds to the general confusion, what with Diao’s endless affection (also evident in Black Coal) for flashbacks and a certain weakness for hinging every plot twist on a double cross. It can be a bit of a slog, but for anyone who’s a true noir fan it’s absolutely mandatory viewing.
In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5488-5551), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
The Wild Goose Lake home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 He Le Chen Guang International Culture Media Co., Ltd., Green Ray Films (Shanghai) Co., Ltd.