Cannes 2019: Diao Yinan's Slick Gangster Noir 'The Wild Goose Lake'
by Alex Billington
May 25, 2019
The latest film made by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Diao Yinan (who won the Golden Bear at Berlinale in 2014 with his film Black Coal, Thin Ice) is a noir feature titled The Wild Goose Lake, or Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui in Chinese. Both written and directed by Diao Yinan, this crazy cool crime thriller is about top gangster who ends up on the run from cops when a night of stealing motorbikes goes sideways. A quiet woman works with him and helps facilitate his sly getaways, and he starts to feel closer and closer to her while constantly coming under attack - both by rival gangsters and ruthless cops who put a bounty on his capture. The Wild Goose Lake is built upon old school film noir filmmaking but with a modern feel. I pretty much loved watching this film, it totally sucked me in even though I wasn't always sure what was going on.
Diao Yinan's The Wild Goose Lake premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival playing in competition, and it deserves awards because it's so damn good. Hu Ge stars as Zhou Zenong, the gangster at the center of the story. It's a bit confusing who is who, and what everyone's motivation is, as there's a number of supporting characters who come in and out of the story. The cops are obvious, and while the editing is smooth, there's a few other gangsters and friends who show up either helping or hurting him. Gwei Lun-Mei plays Liu Aiai, the mysterious short-haired woman who helps guide him around various cities and works as his confidant. She's just trying to keep him safe, and takes on the side mission of finding his wife so he can reconnect with her (before it gets really bad, of course). Much like vintage film noir, no place is safe, and as soon as they get somewhere to hide out, someone else comes around the corner and finds them and they continue running.
Despite confusion with the story, the film still sucked me in. And I enjoyed it because sometimes films are crafted so perfectly in every other aspect that it's enjoyable to watch and follow it anyway, even if the plot doesn't exactly come together. It isn't so jarring that it's distracting, especially because the filmmaking is so smooth and beautiful to look at. The cinematography by Dong Jingsong (who also shot Black Coal, Thin Ice and Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night) is phenomenal, a mesmerizing mix of natural light, hidden set lights, and meticulous framing, combined with the style and structure of old school film noir. And there's a handful of awesome action set pieces, not only hand-to-hand combat but chase scenes and motorbike fights. Rarely do guns make an appearance, only used as the most violent weapons to stop people in their tracks. Most of the time it's about staying out of sight, being one step ahead of everyone else or you're dead.
The way Diao Yinan plays with light and shadows is so slick, he's undeniably a master of visual storytelling. While noir filmmakers have been shooting films like this for decades before, he infuses this classic style with so much modern grittiness. As far as I can tell, these aren't sets but natural locations that exist somewhere deep in China - and he uses that grungy, lived-in, sullied feel of these places to add extra dimensions to the look of every frame. Shots focus on walls and the ground and corners and streets and it's never distracting, because it's a part of the scenery. Even though we're not always focused entirely on the action, this allows viewers to get a much more intimate and accurate feel of each location than if the camera were to just focus on the actors and follow them. I was constantly in awe watching this film and staring at every shot, I want to study each frame. There's one shot in particular where the actors run through the static frame and turn the corner, and you see their shadows grow bigger on the wall as they run away. It's noir cinematography bliss.
The original Chinese titled for the film translate directly to A Rendezvous at a Station in the South, while the English title of The Wild Goose Lake is a reference to a fictional location - a town near a lake where the final showdown takes place. There's an intermix of local dynamics, cops playing tricks and going renegade, and Zhou Zenong using his own skills to continue to lay low. The ending is good enough, but not the most satisfying. Even though I have some criticisms and wish they had worked on the script more so it made more sense, I still love this film. It's just so cool to watch, every shot so marvelously conceived and perfectly lit. I'm so glad I could see it projected on a big screen, and I really can't wait to watch it again and examine each shot in more detail. Photographers, cinematographers, visual artists all need to see this film - it's inspiring.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Rating: 8 out of 10
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