Broody film a box-office winner

Updated: 2014-04-02 08:38

By Liu Wei (China Daily USA)

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The noir thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice has attracted audiences previously unheard of for an art-house film. Liu Wei chats to director Diao Yinan about balancing artistic vision with commercial realities.

For many years, Chinese films that enjoyed success at European film festivals have struggled at the box office, but Diao Yinan's Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice is bucking that trend.

Released on March 21, the art-house film has taken 80 million yuan ($13 million), an impressive opening for a film without an A-list director or actors.

Diao had to make some tough decisions when balancing his artistic vision and the market demands when making the film, which also won the Silver Bear for best actor for Liao Fan at the Berlin festival in February.

The film is a salute to film noir, a genre that prospered in the 1940s. The characters are neither heroes nor villains and have cynical, ambiguous attitudes toward morality. The typical protagonists are a drunk detective, a femme fatale, a corrupt policeman or jealous husband.

In Black Coal, Thin Ice, alcoholic detective Zhang Zili is at a low point. His wife has divorced him and he is plagued by guilt over the death of a colleague. He tries to piece his life together by investigating an unusual murder case and in so doing falls for a dangerous woman at the center of the case.

The film is Diao's third feature and his biggest commercial work. The 45-year-old is not a big name at the box office, but his last film Night Train premiered in the "particular outlook" category at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Broody film a box-office winner

Since graduating from the Central Academy of Drama in 1991, he has spent most of his career working as a scriptwriter, keeping some distance from the industry. He has written only five film scripts. He spends most of his time reading and writing at home. "If the sunshine is good, that is an extra blessing for me," he says.

In 2005, he wrote the first draft of Black Coal, Thin Ice, inspired by US novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Wakefield. Hawthorne's story is about a man who leaves his wife and moves to the next street to watch her from afar. Twenty years later he returns as if nothing ever happened.

The first draft was rejected by investors, because it was "too art-house".

When Diao was revising the script he read a news item about a man who had been found guilty of killing his wife. He was set free when 11 years later his wife suddenly returned home. It turned out the dead body was not his wife's.

"Life can be stranger than fiction," he says. "I felt a sense of duty to record the absurdities of this drastically changing society."

Producer Wen Yan and Diao took the script to European film markets for investment, but in 2008 the economic crisis hit. European producers and buyers wanted completed films they could distribute internationally. They didn't want to spend money making a film.

Their friend Shen Yang, the former program director of Shanghai International Film Festival, suggested they try the domestic market, which was booming. Box office takings were sky-rocketing, new theaters were being built, and a new generation of moviegoers were going to the cinema.

But the market was unsophisticated. Audiences were not ready for an art-house film. Chinese film-goers wanted genre films. They liked to know what they were going to watch, and did not like to be too challenged.

A detective thriller seemed the safest option. Diao had to make the story intriguing and dramatic. One of the investors, the Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation, suggested adding a little romance.

Eight years after he completed the first draft, filming started in Harbin, one of the coldest places in China.

The result is a solid genre film with crime and romance, but Diao does not think the end product is a commercial compromise. The core of the bleak tale still explores his thoughts on morality and good and evil.

"I am a minor pessimist," he says. "I am pessimistic the day I find we are all going to die, but if you take another approach, that is also the reason why we struggle to live on, trying to be happy every day. My characters are not successful or perfect. They are guys who linger on the edge of evil, trying to live on."

The film's box-office takings greatly encouraged him.

"It will be a beautiful thing if the film proves that our market can actually accept films that are not that big, but are of good quality and unique in style," he says.

The German award and healthy box office takings may bring him more opportunities and investment for later projects, but he remains wary of the future.

"In the past I knew I had nothing to rely on, except for a good story, so I tried my best to write a good story," he says. "But now I have more say. Maybe I will, consciously or not, put less effort into writing a good story. I am aware of that possibility and don't want to see that happen."

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 Broody film a box-office winner

Director Diao Yinan does not think his award-winning film Black Coal, Thin Ice is a commercial compromise. Photos by Jiang Dong / China Daily

 Broody film a box-office winner

A scene from Black Coal, Thin Ice. Provided to China Daily

 Broody film a box-office winner

Diao (third from left)with the main cast of the movie at a promotion held in Beijing.

(China Daily USA 04/02/2014 pagee8)