The Wild Goose Lake
2020, NR, 111 min. Directed by Diao Yi'nan. Starring Hu Ge, Gwei Lun Mei, Liao Fan, Wan Qian.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 27, 2020
As gangster flicks go, The Wild Goose Lake is more elegiac and restrained than most. Chinese writer-director Diao opens the followup his 2015 murder-mystery Black Coal, Thin Ice with a scene that is more Wong Kar-wa than Johnnie To: a mysterious man meets an equally enigmatic woman on a rainy street, their exchange whispered as they shelter from the downpour. Yet theirs is no quiet conversation between lovers. Zhou (Hu) is a gangster on the run after accidentally murdering an undercover cop: Liu (Gwei) is the sex worker dispatched by Zhou's old bosses to tell him that his wife won't be meeting with him. It's a perfect meet-anti-cute — him all burned-out Robert Mitchum cool, her with that Veronica Lake don't-care-stare (or maybe it's just a mask for some Jean Gillie-style malevolence). The location, the cultural mores, and most especially the sparse soundtrack (mixing minimalist electronica and the guzheng or Chinese zither) may be Chinese, but this is all-American noir at its blackened heart.
That includes the narrative mechanism, as Zhou recounts his bloody fall to Liu via an extended flashback a la The Killers (or maybe it's a reminder of Out of the Past, and Liu is drenched in that Jane Greer deceit). She fires back with a recollection of her own, one in which she's a witness to the consistent tide of violence in the Wuhan underworld.
The Wild Goose Lake's most undeniable appeal is in the cinematography of Dong Jingsong (possibly best known for handling the reshoots on Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night). These streets are consistently covered in night and shadow, only interupted by white pools from security lights, sickly yellows seeping from florescent tubes, the skipping headlight glare of passing cars, and the dull glow of the light-up sneakers that many of the wannabe thugs think make them look so cool. Most especially, it's in how he captures the consistent violence to which Liu is witness and that seems drawn to Zhou like flies toa corpse. The first brawl is shown in tableaux, often caught at distance from a locked-off camera, and static glimpses oddly evocative of Mapplethorpe for their mannered approach to physicality.
Yet the abstraction, combined with a glacial pace, can be wearing, particularly with the latter injection of everyday surrealism. A shootout in a zoo, followed by a trip to a seaside carnival attraction, seem forced. Occasional and uncritical glimpses of police investigation feel awkwardly inserted, giving the middle act an uneven tone and another POV that adds little. The final act, and the inevitable noir showdown, give a welcome return to the opening low-gear fury, but it's too late to escape comparisons to another imitator of the form. Noted Hitchcock imitator Brian De Palma has a similar grasp of the form without quite grasping the function: While Diao has more to say in the story of cops and robbers than just a statement of style, that style often gets in the way of the intention.
The Wild Goose Lake is currently available through Film Movement's initiative whereby streaming "tickets" can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local arthouse cinemas. Choose from:
• AFS Cinema (tickets here)
• Alamo Drafthouse Austin (tickets here)
• Violet Crown Austin ( tickets here)