Patrick Preziosi on Diao Yi’nan’s ‘The Wild Goose Lake’ (2020)
There’s a moment in director Diao Yi’nan’s previous feature, Black Coal, Thin Ice / Bai ri yan huo (2014), of such unnervingly cumbersome violence, so borderline parodic in its fumbling, that it threatens to capsize an otherwise fatalistic and resolutely dour film. What should be a routine arrest at a queasily-lit hair salon devolves into a mess of mishandled handguns, handcuffed perps, and bodies hurling themselves across the screen as if they were aspiring WWE wrestlers. It’s not a particularly transcendent scene, but its willingness to undercut solidly choreographed action with such ridiculous clumsiness is compelling and unique, not to mention pragmatic when considering the different, opposing elements at play.
If one were to glean anything from Diao’s latest, The Wild Goose Lake, it’d be that the director has tilted towards events similar for their discombobulation and, admittedly, maybe at the sacrifice of some necessary narrative heft. While that’s partially right, Diao’s bald-faced bids at neo-noir are rooted in a classical comprehension of the genre, and the welcomingly tantalising nonsense that it can so expertly mould to its liking. This endless night odyssey is more beholden to Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), Lang’s M (1931), or Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) than any half-baked cops ‘n’ robbers fare to come out within the last few decades. The film’s primary focus, gang leader Zenong Zhu (Ge Hu), is even in possession of the preternatural efficiency of any Alain Delon / Melville protagonist, from the hitman of the aforementioned Le Samourai to the professionally suave bank-robber of Le Cercle Rouge (1970) (a hotel scuffle results in Zenong ably forcing one enemy to shoot another between the eyes, reminiscent of the early pool-hall scene in the latter film). Although The Wild Goose Lake traces the effects of hyperbolic violence across increasingly disorienting sequences and set pieces (a beheading performed with a conveniently placed forklift; a group of plainclothes police officers bedecked in matching light-up sneakers; a standoff in a zoo; the use of Boney M.’s “Rasputin”), its setup is sturdy enough that its sly subversions and ruptures land with intended effect.
Two parallel-running flashbacks occur one after the other, after Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) brushes past Zenong under a rainy overpass, promising that she’s been sent by friends of his to ensure his safe passage. Zenong’s flashback traces where the trouble started for the local gangster: at an underground convening of the area’s gangs (for the purpose of delineating motorcycle thefts across the city), tensions flare when some express that Zenong is being given unnecessary special treatment, as he and his underlings are bestowed the city-sector richest in bikes. Ringleader Brother Ma proposes a competition, a show of strength of hot-wiring capabilities between the warring gangs. A flurry of crosscutting and otherwise silent soundscapes punctuated by the roar of motorcycle engines during this “Olympic game of theft” is cut short when rival Cat’s Eye shoots at Zenong. His eyes clouded with blood and image obscured by torrential rain, Zenong begins firing at anyone he sees in his attempted trek towards shelter — one being a roadside cop. A citywide manhunt ensues, with a not too shabby $300,000 reward attached as well.
Aiai’s own flashback — altogether kicking things into a more slippery direction — furnishes the paranoia the manhunt dredges up, rendering circumstances more inscrutable, while simultaneously pushing forth The Wild Goose Lake’s symbolic weight. Aiai works as a sort of prostitute known as a “bathing beauty” alongside the titular lake, framed as a haven for more destitute and illicit affairs. Her and her pimp, Hua Hua (Dao Qi) are roped into locating Zenong’s relatively estranged wife, Shujun (Regina Wan) for him. As the two take on this perilous task of transporting a wanted man’s wife through an ever-cracking down police presence, Diao crafts some of his most off-kilter work yet, anchoring the lurid bloodsport in an environment of fitful unknowing. As Shujan moves changing hands between Hua Hua and Aiai amongst a collection of tarp-tent stalls and noodle stands, there’s the metastasising dread that anyone surrounding the trio could be a cop. And soon enough, a gun is fired, and although the distinction between who belongs to the police, who’s a criminal, and who’s simply in between, is obliterated, the spray of blood against plastic curtains snaps one back into the film’s mesmeric balancing of white-knuckle buildup and release.
The unvarnished sterility of Diao’s and DP Jingsong Dong’s compositions — which elevate largely static wide angled shots into striking tableaux — suggests an objective omniscience not unlike surveillance footage. This crystallises in an early, newscast montage, in which stock footage, security tapes, and police-captured video all transition seamlessly between one another and the very fabric of the film itself. This seemingly earthbound technique actually works as another cog in The Wild Goose Lake’s inscrutable dream logic, which contrasts blunt, police-state machinations with bizarrely liberating violence, as gleefully and viscerally rendered as an umbrella thrust through one’s belly, and then opened.
Diao operates best within a sphere in which the emotional is subsumed in the psychological effects of societal circumstance. It’s a top-heavy directorial mode, but one which can still pardon the fatalistic speed-bumps (inconsequential and ultimately intrusive scenes of epilepsy and rape make the hyperbolic violence feel restrained in comparison). As is revealed, Zenong isn’t trying to suss out his wife for some tearful last goodbye, but in hopes of her turning him in and receiving that handsome reward herself. It becomes evermore clear that Diao isn’t just fashioning The Wild Goose Lake as a vessel for his sickly-sweet violence, but rather a microcosmic representation of a police-society still dictated by capital. Bloodshed is just one of the resolutions.
Showing at New York City’s Film Forum on 6th March 2020 and available to stream in the UK on MUBI 28th February 2020.