Amazon Instant Video hidden gems: Black Coal, Thin Ice

The type of winter on show in Black Coal, Thin Ice places the film into the pantheon of offerings that use the season as, if not a character, then a very distinct, black, cold-hearted mood. Think Fargo with an eastern sense of humour and you're somewhere in the right region. This is the kind of ice-blanketed landscape that sees each of the main characters wrap their faces in thick scarves or fall over when they should be doing something more important. It's the type of setting, mood and plot where ice skates are a primary murder weapon, though icicles could just have readily been used.

Who knows how this ended up on my watchlist, but I strongly suspect Leeds International Film Festival had something to do with it at some point. A Chinese offering following a flawed but brilliant cop on a shambolic trail of a killer who manages to dispose of their victims in various coal heaps throughout China has LIFF written all over it.

The narrative and seasonal chillyness is bracketed by traditionally off-kilter eastern cinematic levity. In an early arrest scene, one cop flings himself across the picture, to presumably land on a suspect who has since exited stage right. As the cop disappears from view, a stool is flung in from the wings. It's classic Bugs Bunny and silent cinema stuff. In another scene, Zhang (Fan Liao), now a drunk security guard, has stopped at the side of an icy road for a lie down. A kindly passerby stops to check how he is, before promptly stealing his bike. The culture norms may be different and, arguably, the dark side of it is darker, but this is only an occasional 'yarp' or 'you betcha' from The Coens' own icy wilderness.

As Zhang continues to investigate the murders some years after they first began, the plot wraps itself in too many holes to be entirely satisfying. The main riddle can be solved after about an hour by those paying attention and is confirmed about ten minutes later. Some of what remains, following Wu (Lun-Mei Kwei) feels fairly superfluous. Given the film's season, its economic links and its downtrodden 'heroes', you would have thought it could muster more to say. The IMDb trivia tells us that the first cut was two-hundred and ten minutes long and perhaps in the edit something has been lost.

There's certainly major suggestions that the original script had something more to do with misogyny, even before the finale. We open, for example, on Zhang with what appears to be his recently ex-wife, in a bravura sequence that follows a spiralling severed hand and cuts to Zhang's ex-wife's own (still attached), on a bed. But despite a constant slew of scenes that factor into the conversation (not least what appears to be a troubling rape sequence late on), writer/director Yi'nan Diao can't seem to hone in on what it is he was trying to say, and a general feeling of everything around the topic not quite adding up to much pervades.

What remains though is a frosty, entertaining mood piece, worth seeing for many reasons, even if the moralising isn't one of them.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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