Zenong Zhou (Ge He) is a marked man on the run. He operates a motorcycle theft ring in a designated section of Wuhan but his rivals are itching to take over his turf. The conflict escalates into gang warfare and Zhou is forced to flee the city after accidentally killing a cop. Hunted by both underworld enemies and the police, the fugitive realizes his days are numbered but tries to arrange for his ex-wife Shujun (Regina Wan) to collect the large bounty on his head. Instead, a mysterious woman named Aiai (Lun-Mei Kwei) shows up as a go-between to help facilitate Zhou’s request but can he trust her? This uncertainty drives the narrative of The Wild Goose Lake, the fourth feature film from Chinese director Yi’nan Diao.
Diao’s movie has the doom-laden structure of a classic Hollywood film noir like Raw Deal or Criss Cross but filters it through an art-house visual aesthetic that makes it seem less like a homage than a new kind of hybrid. If you have seen the trailer for the film, The Wild Goose Lake looks violent, fast paced and a guaranteed thrill ride for action fans. This isn’t entirely accurate but Diao’s film has an unpredictable stop-and-go rhythm that ultimately works in its favor. What could have been a standard chase/revenge thriller becomes a fever dream that is alternately cynical and melancholy.
Yes, there are some spectacular action sequences and jolts of sudden violence, most of it taking place at night in the rain or in sweltering tropical weather. Yet one of the most intriguing aspects of The Wild Goose Lake is the way Diao draws you into the story. You could say the film begins in the middle with Zhou and Aiai meeting for the first time. Both characters are wary, tight-lipped and inscrutable but through flashbacks, we learn who they are, starting first with Zhou and then Aiai. There is a palpable sexual tension between them but the movie is less interested in developing a romantic subplot than contemplating the motives that are driving these characters.
The setting of Wuhan and the surrounding vicinity in the year 2012 is also an inspired choice. We seem to be in some no man’s land of chicken processing plants, abandoned theme parks and resort beaches populated by prostitutes and their clients. What we do see of the city is a crumbling infrastructure represented by seedy backstreet hotels, dimly lit hole-in-the-wall cafes and smoky pool halls. And the gangster clans and local law enforcement seem interchangeable – both are unmanageable, reactionary and not to be trusted. It’s not a postcard, tourist-friendly portrait of contemporary China but it’s a perfect setting for a film noir.
When Diao was questioned about this in an interview with Variety, he said, “China’s development — its societal changes and its gap between the rich and the poor, between the urban and rural regions — has given us so many stories that we can create from. These stories align themselves easily with the essentials of film noir. It’s not that I’m forcibly fitting the framework of film noir onto a Chinese story; it’s that Chinese society is such that when I go to tell a Chinese story, it very naturally comes out as film noir.”
Certainly The Wild Goose Lake is permeated with an atmosphere of dread and remorse but it is also a thing of beauty to behold. The cinematography by Jingsong Dong is incandescent and dreamy and some of the framing and camera angles will remind you of Bin Gan’s recent Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018), which is not a coincidence. Dong was one of three cinematographers who helped craft the hallucinatory imagery of Gan’s feature and his work on The Wild Goose Lake highlights the odd detail to stunning effect: the glowing tennis shoes of line dancers in a raucous bar. Aiai and Zhou walking pass a wall mural of urban landscapes. A woman posing as a flower vase inside an arcade exhibit. A shootout at a zoo reflected through brief illuminations of various animals responding to the gun shots – an owl, pink flamingos, an elephant, a tiger.
Ge Hu and Lun-Mei Kwei, the two main leads, are enormously charismatic and attractive despite the questionable and possibly amoral characters they are playing. It is the first leading role in a feature film for Ge Hu and quite a departure from the romantic characters he plays in popular Chinese TV series like Game of Hunting and Good Times. Lun-Mei Kwei, on the other hand, received widespread critical acclaim for her performance in Yi’nan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), which was also the director’s first foray into the film noir genre.
The Wild Goose Lake is made to be seen on the big screen but it had the misfortune of opening in select theaters nationwide in mid-March. Due to the pandemic, the majority of screenings were cancelled like the one at the Plaza Theater. However, you can now stream the film on the Plaza Theater website – plazaatlanta.com – and it is highly recommended for anyone interested in current Chinese cinema.
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