The Wild Goose Lake: To Live and Die in Wuhan, by Dave Platt
With his first movie since 2014’s Berlin Film Festival-winning Black Coal, Thin Ice, writer/director Diao Yinan has returned to the noir genre, and crafted an exceptionally stylish audiovisual feast of neon- and rain-soaked sleaze. While Black Coal, Thin Ice was a frosty, downbeat hybrid of neo-noir and bleak social realism, The Wild Goose Lake foregoes that film’s thematic richness in favour of a much purer exercise in genre, a film delighted to be nothing other than glorious pulp. Sure, some of the plotting could be simpler and more elegant, and at times the movie feels a tad unfocused with perhaps too many interchangeable cops and criminals, but when every chase, murder, set piece and sequence is executed with such exhilarating and sumptuous style, why bother worrying about such things? Great genre filmmaking is an exercise in making the familiar feel new and original, and Diao’s consummate skill and inventiveness are on full display during every familiar noir beat, from the intimate moments to the grand. With a filmmaker this in command of his craft, it’s not so much style over substance, but style as substance.
Hu Ge stars as Zhou Zenong, a career criminal in the mould of the most weary and fatalistic antiheroes of classic noir. Like many such characters, he spends the film on the run, taking beatings, sussing out the murky loyalties of those around him, just trying to live by the code he has set himself. We meet him in the opening scene, under a shadowy overpass, the crack of thunder punctuating the deluge of rain. He is met there by the film’s version of a femme fatale, Liu Ai’ai, a “bathing beauty” (a euphemistic term for a seaside prostitute) in the service of gangster Huahua who is there to deliver a message from Zhou’s wife. Zhou seems to care little about the high price on his head, concerned that whatever happens to him his wife should be taken care of by any reward for his capture or death. Right from the beginning, Diao employs image and sound to lace every second with rising tension, the precisely evocative soundscape and lush visuals complimented darkly by the pulsing, percussive score.
From this opening scene, we flash back two nights to a much less beaten-down Zhou and to a convocation of gangsters in which career thieves are first schooled on new techniques to steal motorcycles. They then have the region’s territories parcelled out between them, a moment typical of the film’s procedural attention to the methods and operations of both police and underworld. Factional violence breaks out and quickly descends into a mass brawl, shot and edited through a series of brutal close-ups on hands, faces, bodies, weapons, that gives way to a beautifully fluid tracking shot when Zhou himself gets involved. The fallout from this beef (and the “Olympics of theft” that is settled on to determine its outcome) is what sets the plot in motion, and before long one of Zhou’s right-hand men has been killed and Zhou, in his rush to escape a similar fate, has shot and killed a cop, placing that hefty bounty on his head and sending him into hiding from both sides of the law. He flees to the titular seaside criminal enclave, where the dubiously loyal Liu Ai’ai plies her trade.
Plainclothes police and criminal operatives flood this community as the clock ticks on Zhou’s attempt to make things right. Moving effortlessly back and forth in time and space, the movie keeps revealing just as much as it needs to in order to complicate things, and explores the machinations and manipulations of both the law and those who live outside it as the plot twists and turns relentlessly and characters begin to meet sticky ends.
Diao seems deeply aware of the genre tradition he is reworking and gestures toward classic films like those of Bogart or The Third Man and Godard’s Breathless, among several others. Filtered through Diao’s impeccable eye for staging and plotting (not to mention the film’s complete embeddedness in the seedy underbelly of modern China), cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s dazzling visuals and a masterful and modern sound design, nothing here feels stale or self-satisfied. Like many of the great noirs, shocking violence bursts forth without warning throughout, and there are sequences that drift into the visually and tonally surreal. And similarly characteristic of the genre’s best entries, the movie’s inventiveness is underpinned by a sense of fatalism, frankness and ambiguity. There are some gratuitous moments, one brief scene of sexual violence in particular, and Diao has reached greater heights as a filmmaker in the past. But the man knows and loves this genre, and there is so much to love about this absolutely gorgeous and unsentimental piece of cinematic wizardry. For any fan of noir or crime films, anyone who delights in the unpredictable and brutal world of alleyways, rainy neon nightscapes and unknowable ulterior motives, it is impossible not to be swept up in such purely and skillfully-told pulp.