Interview: Diao Yinan

The Black Coal, Thin Ice director on winning Berlin's Golden Bear Award

Diao Yinan was a relative unknown before his gritty detective thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice scooped this year’s Berlin Film Festival award for best film. Time Out talk to the Xian-born director

‘I have said before that for international filmmakers, 2013 is the year of China,’ wrote Zhou Tiedong, president of China Film Promotion International on his Sina Weibo microblog. ‘The following ten years will be the China decade.’ Zhou’s comment joined scores of other tributes following the announcement in February that Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice had won the Golden Bear for best film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. ‘After a very long wait, Chinese films have finally burst forth magnificently again in the world’s film festivals, with fireworks,’ gushed Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

Previously, Diao Yinan was not one of China’s prominent directors. The 44-year-old graduated from the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing with a degree in literature and screenwriting in 1992, and is better known for his avant-garde theatre. He has written screenplays for the notable films Shower (see Feature, page 7) and Spicy Love Soup, both directed by Zhang Yang. As a director, Diao’s two previous films, Uniform (2003) and Night Train (2007), were received favourably by critics at festivals but had limited commercial scope.

For Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao was determined to do the improbable: entertain viewers, get approval of the officials and retain artistic merit. ‘Previous award-winning Chinese films at international film festivals have had their own outstanding arguments, incisive reflections on social realities and have usually expressed these thoughts through a documentary approach to shooting,’ says Diao. ‘They have high-minded ideologies and artistic merit. But audiences in China prefer a certain entertaining element. They would rather buy a ticket for something amusing. I think these [ideological] films ignore this point.’

Diao’s film is a gritty detective thriller – a hybrid of arthouse and genre cinema – set in the industrial bleakness of Heilongjiang province. The film opens in 1999 with shots of dismembered body parts cartwheeling along coal chutes. The dead man is identified as a worker at one of the local factories whose wife, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei), works at a small dry-cleaning shop. Gruff, recently divorced detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan, who also won the prize for best actor at Berlin) soon identifies two suspects, but the arrest spirals into a dramatic, deadly shootout.

Five years later Zhang, now a bedraggled, drunk security guard, is still coming to terms with the carnage. After meeting his former partner he learns that more dismembered workers have been found in circumstances mirroring the previous case. The new bodies also have ties to the widow Wu. Zhang gets drawn back into the investigation, becoming a customer at Wu’s laundrette and trailing her at night. Zhang’s fascination with the case becomes entangled in his attraction for Wu, who may or may not be a lethal ‘black widow’, and the plot crackles with romantic fatalism. ‘Their attraction climaxes in more ways than one while they’re dangling inside an immobile cable car, in a Hitchcockian scene spiked with eros and tension,’ says a review in The Hollywood Reporter.

Before he made Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao considered The Maltese Falcon, watched The Third Man and made note of the ‘brilliant’ extended take with which Orson Welles opens Touch of Evil. ‘I said to myself, “Okay, film offers numerous ways of expression, you should just follow your instincts while shooting,”’ Diao says. He has long admired detective films and found something within that genre that resonates with contemporary China. ‘China today is changing greatly,’ he says. ‘Some of the things that happen seem unbelievable. Some homicide cases, for example, seem preposterous – and yet at the same time accurate reflections of our contemporary reality. Something seemingly insignificant and colourless can spark off an entire rainbow of implications.’

The Chinese name for Black Coal, Thin Ice translates to ‘fireworks in daylight’. While the English title carries overt references to film noir (‘black’ coal and white ‘ice’), the Chinese title is more metaphorical. Fireworks in daylight provide a kind of emotional catharsis that people use to shield themselves from the harsher aspects of the world. ‘The truth is that in every person’s inner world they might hide some unbearable memories, but most days they have to behave as if nothing has happened,’ Diao says. ‘In using this title I’m obviously suggesting that Chinese people today are in dire need of that kind of catharsis.’

Black Coal, Thin Ice is the fourth Mainland film to win the Golden Bear, after Xie Fei’s Woman from the Lake of Scented Soul (1993), Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1988) and Wang Quanan’s Tuya’s Marriage (1997). Yet films lauded at foreign film festivals don’t necessarily become commercial successes back home. Tuya’s Marriage made just 1.2 million RMB at the Chinese box office. Diao thinks that China’s film market has not yet cultivated a mature cinema-going community. The problem is compounded by the country’s unwieldy, inhibiting official interference. But cinema chains are also culpable. ‘Domestic theatre chain executives would rather show guaranteed money-makers,’ says Diao. ‘I think we shouldn’t blame the filmmakers, it’s more for the lack of “hardware support.”'

Diao therefore spent eight years infusing his high-minded Black Coal, Thin Ice script with elements that would attract audiences. As the Berlin victory attests, it is possible to stay true to artistic credibility and produce a money-making film. Diao is buoyant: ‘I think it’s a good time to be a director in China,’ he says. ‘The market is growing. It will keep refining and dividing and every director will find their position. I believe that the market is gradually turning into the one I hope it can be.’

Black Coal, Thin Ice is in cinemas around town now.

Additional reporting by Xia Keyu.