The Wild Goose Lake

 (Diao Yinan, China/France, 2019)

2019 Cannes, Munich, Jerusalem, Wellington, Melbourne, Lima, Toronto, San Sebastián, Athens, New York, Vancouver, Sitges, Gent, Mumbai, Chicago, São Paulo, Kyiv, Geneva, San Diego, Leeds, Singapore
2020 Palm Springs, Göteborg, Rotterdam

Director of the terrific, Berlinale-winning police procedural Black Coal, Thin Ice, China’s Diao Yinan wowed Cannes with this superlative film noir. Stacked with some of the most uniquely thrilling sequences you’ll see in a cinema this year, his lauded follow-up centres on a rogue gangster (Hu Ge) who’s wanted by the cops and the mob – and the opportunistic prostitute (Gwei Lun Mei) who may or may not give him up for the sizable bounty on his head.

“Diao cements his status as a master filmmaker with another ingenious crime epic. The Wild Goose Lake is [an] assured, exhilarating tale of criminality and the havoc it wreaks on interpersonal connection, with everything impressive about its predecessor – attentive procedural detail, curious experiments with colour and shadow, action set pieces that’d make Michael Mann envious – raised to the Nth degree. There’s not a single false step in its two hours; every edit, every shot setup, every movement of the camera maximises the raw cinematic effect. There’s power in Diao’s more subdued passages, but when he really lets loose and the fists (or bullets, or strategically concealed booby-traps) start flying, this film’s greatness transforms from the kind that sneaks up on you to the kind that blows you away.”
– Charles Bramesco, Little White Lies.

Back in the days before the Chinese government cracked down on independent filmmaking (by imposing huge fines on anyone who makes and shows unapproved films), Diao Yinan directed his debut feature Uniform (Zhifu 2003), in which a young slacker borrows’ a police uniform and finds himself empowered socially and psychologically. Sixteen years later Diao’s fourth feature The Wild Goose Lake inverts the idea: the plainclothes cops on the trail of a cop-killing gangster dress up as disco-dancers and bikers to stake out criminal hide-outs and beat local small-time gangsters at their own games. Uniform remains officially unreleased in China, while the new film, posing as a straightforward noir thriller, was given the longbiao (‘dragon mark’) seal of approval by the censors and permitted, as a French co-production, to compete in Cannes.

Diao graduated from the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, and knows a thing or two about acting. He has even done a bit himself, notably in Yu Likwai’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (Mingri Tianya, 2003) and Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White (Jianghu Ernu, 2018), but he first got involved with Chinese movies as a scriptwriter for Peter Loehr’s company Imar in the later 1990s. In his time as a writer-for-hire he specialised in social satire – the highpoint was probably Zhang Yang’s Shower (Xizao, 1999), framed as a lament for the demise of Beijing’s neighbourhood bath-houses – and he’s carried that forward as one strand in his own work as writer-director. But his main interest is in assumed identities. All four of his features to date have hinged on characters who hide their ‘real’ characters and motives.

Lake goes one better than the genre commonplace that cops and gangsters are mirror images of each other. Here, the cops and crims are literally indistinguishable: they dress alike, think and behave the same way, adopt the same strategies and speak the same local dialect. (It’s Chinese as spoken in the currently troubled city of Wuhan, although the film doesn’t name its setting.) Diao underlines the premise in the opening scenes: the town’s rival gangs convene in the large basement room of a hotel for a lecture-demonstration on the finer points of motorcycle theft and then a map-based proposal to assign ‘turf’ to individual gangs, and our first glimpse of the cops some ten minutes later shows them planning to tackle motorcycle thefts by parcelling out streets and districts in exactly the same way. The one difference between the two sides emerges much later, when several cops pose for a ‘trophy photo’ over the corpse of a man they’ve just gunned down. The gangsters are driven by vicious rivalry, but they don’t ‘celebrate’ their victories like that.

The first half of the complicated plot is told in flashbacks, shared by man-on-the-run Zhou Zenong (played by Hu Ge, an actor-singer from TV) and odd-woman-out hooker Aiai (Taiwanese star Gwei Lunmei, also a lead in Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice), with occasional cutaways to police briefings. Zhou has killed a cop by mistake; Aiai has been hired by Zhou’s supposed friends to track down both him and his estranged wife. Zhou looks and behaves like a typical noir protagonist throughout, but the plot ultimately turns on Aiai, whose real feelings and motives remain ambiguous to the end, although she does give Zhou a free blowjob before sending him into a potentially fatal trap.

Diao delivers all the classic traits of film noir – from the rain-sodden streets to the casual brutality – with flair and gusto, and mounts a string of spectacular set pieces, including a brawl lit by a single, swinging light bulb and a shootout watched by zoo animals. The imagery and cutting are consistently arresting, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the visual razzle-dazzle is a deliberate distraction from underlying themes which might not have got past the censor so easily. The allegorical resonances are, of course, up for debate.
– Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound, April 2019.

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