The Wild Goose Lake – first look review
China’s Diao Yinan landed the Golden Bear prize at the Berlinale in 2014 for his Black Coal, Thin Ice, a film that impressed the jury by merit of its original take on the gangster picture and the finesse with which the director executed his refreshing of the genre. Like so many master filmmakers, a distinction he has now earned beyond any shadow of a doubt, he followed his most high-profile success by doing the same thing differently.
The Wild Goose Lake is another 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.
Diao’s writing makes a viewer work for it, fine-points comprehension slipping away with even a moment’s tune-out, but the broad contours of its plot can be followed easily enough. On his first day out the feds, made man Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) reunites with his biker crew at a gangland summit that quickly descends into fisticuffs supercharged by rapid-fire cutting. The fight spills out into the public, and Zhou makes a pair of bad decisions that get both Wuhan’s amateurish police force and its felonious underground on his tail.
The term “ride-or-die” takes on new significance when so-called “bathing beauty” – a regional term referring to a sex worker frequenting the beach – Liu Alai (Diao regular Gwei Lun Mei) joins him as he flees. But can she be trusted not to give him up for the 300,000-yuan reward? If it sounds like they’re on course to establish a fragile bond of intimacy through their shared predicament, think again. Their lone sexual encounter concludes on a decidedly unsentimental note.
Their flight from consequences takes them on a motorbike tour through arresting tableaux befitting the ugly beauty of industrialised China. A textile factory offers a pleasing symmetry even in its mechanical lifelessness. A run-down apartment takes on a grimy glamour due to the neon sign pouring rich magenta through the window. A dance party to Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ gets cut short by gunfire, the attendees’ light-up trainers skittering away like Day-Glo shooting stars. Even the snatches of shocking violence have a novelty and ingenuity to them; you’ll never look at your umbrella the same way again.
In his best moments, viewers familiar with Diao’s filmography will be able to see him working to one-up his previous work. His critiques of China’s class disparities have grown harsher, his yellows even more sickly, his tracking shots more adventurous. It’s a rare privilege, to watch an artist level up in this way. Having conquered Berlin, Diao’s making his first appearance In Competition this year at Cannes. Judging by his driving need to attain a higher and higher echelon of greatness, however, it looks like he’s really in competition with himself. And with the high bar set by this latest triumph, he’s got his work cut out for him.
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