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All art is political – or so the saying goes. Even art that is heavily controlled by censors is political whether through that censorship or the themes that slip through or under the net. Diao Yinan’s fourth feature The Wild Goose Lake follows in a tradition of Chinese films that seem to advocate for change by displaying government systems as a boot that force people into crime, rather than as the saving grace preventing the nation from slipping into anarchy. The Wild Goose Lake has an empathy for both cop and criminal and dances the razor edge of never falling too hard towards either side.
Small-time Wuhan gang boss Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) finds himself on the run from the police after a scrap over turf leads to the death of a police officer. Fleeing to Wild Goose Lake, an uncharted area popular with criminals, he hires sex worker Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) to act as the middleman between him, his estranged wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian) and his second-in-command Hua Hua (Qi Dao). With the police led by a formidable Captain (Liao Fan) descending on Wild Goose Lake Zhou must choose between escape or sacrificing himself to provide for his family.
In a relatively short run of films director Yinan has had quite a lot of international success. His second film Night Train competed at Cannes, his third Black Coal, Thin Ice – also starring Liao Fan – won the Golden Bear at 2014’s Berlinale, while The Wild Goose Lake also competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. Yinan has long operated by combining the best of both high and low art. He makes neo-noir detective films as concerned as they are with national issues of justice and crime as they are with brutally stylistic violence and neon lighting. In that way he finds some common ground with two of China’s best and most recent films: Ash is Purest White by enduring master Jia Zhangke and newcomer Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Liao Fan also starred in Ash is Purest White proving that, if nothing else, the man’s got incredible taste but also that he is as capable of carrying a weary pathos as he is an implicit threat. In Ash is Purest White it was the swaggering ferocity of a gangster while in The Wild Goose Lake he operates under the auspices of state sanctioned violence. Opposite him Hu Ge offers up a similar weariness as well as a palpable desperation that grows and grows as the net closes in around him. Initially expressionless his eyes grow wider and his face wilder as he moves from self-assured gang boss to rat in a trap. But neither of these men are the real viewpoint into the world of The Wild Goose Lake.
Liu Aiai is, like so many femme fatales before her, constantly overlooked and underestimated hence her position as go-between. Lun-mei sells Aiai as a woman constantly questioning herself and powered by feverish anxiety. Some of The Wild Goose Lake’s best sequences are seen through her eyes. One long tracking shot follows her from a line dancing party, full of dancers that are all suspiciously wearing neon shoes, to a workshop that routinely lets out gunshot-like bangs before it all explodes in a stand-off all seen from Aiai’s point of view. It’s one of many traditional set-pieces Yinan executes and upends with a confidence like that of prime Michael Mann by way of the Safdie Brothers.
The Wild Goose Lake is essentially a series of fight scenes, chases and raids pinned together by some of the most soulfully lit and beautifully composed dramatic scenes since Drive. Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s decade defining neo-noir, The Wild Goose Lake offsets its beauty with a seedy, grimy ugliness. The scuffle that kicks the film into high gear is all quick cuts, heavy blows and interlocking bodies. An especially metallic sounding sanxian (Chinese lute) generates tension before it snaps explosively like a steel wire stretched to breaking point.
A late film apartment brawl has one of the goriest kills involving an umbrella ever put onscreen but even with this ugliness it’s hard not to admire cinematographer Dong Jingsong’s efforts to bring beauty into ugliness and vice versa. The consistent haze of sodium lamps mixed with scenes lit entirely in deep purple, blood red and lime green highlight the grime just as the filth and grey decay push attention back on the lighting.
The Wild Goose Lake is one of the last of the Cannes 2019 roundup to get a Western release but it’s been worth the wait. Yinan proves that his Berlinale win was no fluke while Fan also proves his Best Actor win at the same festival for the same film wasn’t either. For as much as Western cinema has pushed into China in the last two decades China is very much pushing into the West. Despite the heavy censorship imposed in the country The Wild Goose Lake is a prime example of how films can offer criticism of a state where surveillance and severe punishment is commonplace while also offering up some unique genre thrills along the way.