On one very wet, rainy night at a train station on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Wuhan, a man with cuts on his face is approached by a woman with a plastic see-through umbrella. That man is Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), the fugitive leader of a local gang of motorcycle thieves; the woman is Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-Mei), an apparent ally. For Zhou, everything began to go wrong two nights previous, when one of his henchmen shot the rival gang leader, Cat’s Ear, in the knee with a flare gun at a meeting. The local boss wanted Zhou and Cat’s Ear’s twin brother, Cat’s Eye, to settle the matter with a contest to see whose gang could steal the most scooters. But that ended badly, with a gangster named Redhead lying decapitated in an industrial yard and Zhou on the run after killing a cop that he mistook for one of Cat’s Eye’s gunmen.
With the law offering a three-hundred-thousand yuan reward for his capture, Zhou has not only resigned himself to his fate, but found in it a path to personal redemption. Now all he needs is to find someone he can trust to give him up to the police, claim the reward money, and give it to the wife and son he abandoned for a life of crime. All that is the basic setup of Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, though as with any movie that runs on a moody style and a sense of surprise, it doesn’t begin to convey the film’s peculiarities and surface delights. Showing its characters’ psychology as a distant concern in its hash of genre archetypes, romanticized visual interludes, and popping gags. While the pure story of it all eventually grows too complicated for its own good, Diao is still no stranger to stories of cloudy motivations and death drives. The writer-director’s last film, Black Coal, Thin Ice, came as a premier example of mainland Chinese noir. In many respects, The Wild Goose Lake feels like an attempt to cover every trope that has defined that subgenre in recent years: the backwater vibe of its portrayal of criminal doings at the edge of a big city; the both nostalgic and ironic use of a blatant foreign dance pop song.
The result never approaches the ambition of Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White or the blissful dreaminess of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, both of which are mainstays of recent attempts at expanding on the mainland noir. Part of the problem with The Wild Goose Lake comes down to the disconnect between the way the movie sentimentalizes Zhou’s plan and the way it detaches itself from the characters whose point of views it adopts at various times. Still, Diao’s attempts to create an atmosphere of romantic symbolism can also sometimes verge on parody, but he does succeed with his use of cinematic suggestion and his depiction of both cops and crooks, delivering surreal and grotesque imagery that can keep things lively and gleefully deadpan. In The Wild Goose Lake, he offers up a gangster battle royale in which a combatant’s prosthetic leg gets pulled off while a woman munches on a cucumber on the sidelines; a nighttime police raid on a zoo where gunshots light up the faces’ of the animals; and the sight of undercover cops in light-up sneakers converging around the body of a gangster after a shoot-out before posing for a group photo with the corpse.
One could argue that Diao’s treatment of violence is where he has really distinguished himself as a filmmaker. The hair salon shoot-out that came at the beginning of Black Coal, Thin Ice was a lesson in how to subvert the form — the opening sequence saw a series of deadly fumbles and delayed reactions all which were captured mostly in a single all-knowing perched shot. He pulls off a similar trick a few times in The Wild Goose Lake, cutting to an extreme wide shot at one point to turn the gunplay and brawling into tragicomedy. But he also presents a different kind of intentional ridiculousness in bursts of gruesome bloodletting and dismemberment, of which the aforementioned decapitation and an incredible kill involving an umbrella are only a few examples.
What it all adds up to comes with its fair share of unevenness to blend into the visual panache. The outskirts of Wuhan that make The Wild Goose Lake is a world that is still under construction; even Zhou’s conflict with the Cat’s brothers comes down to the latter being assigned territory that’s still being redeveloped. Diao gives us glances of its emptiness, following characters on scooters down long stretches of partially deserted road, and envisioning a multistory hotel that has been taken over by gangsters due to an absence of actual guests, the rooms washed by the purple-pinkish glow of the oversized sign. The big impacts may not always be there, but The Wild Goose Lake‘s visual gut punches and overall environment find an intriguing effect.