The Wild Goose Lake

A beautifully shot, but undercooked, neo-noir

There’s no denying the beauty of Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui), the Chinese director’s first film since 2014’s Black Coal, Thin Ice. Diao cloaks his neon-infused noir in atmospheric lighting to create a duplicitous world of backstabbing and paranoia, where small-time gang members are just as likely to light each other up as they are to work together. But that beauty isn’t enough to sustain a narrative that would benefit from being much leaner and less opaque in revealing its mysteries.

When you take into consideration Diao’s use of camera, colour blocking, score, shot composition, location, costuming, cast and set pieces, his fourth feature really should add up to more. What ultimately lets the film down are the structural choices used to fill in some of the blanks and unsatisfactory character profiling that acts as a poor substitute for the dissipating tension. An over reliance on the technical wizardry of his crew was also the reason why Diao’s previous Berlinale-winning effort felt so undercooked despite its many wonderful ingredients.

The Wild Goose Lake follows the fortunes of gang leader Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) as he hides in the shadows on the run from the police. He’s accompanied by prostitute Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-me) who has been tasked with helping him find safety. What seems at first to be a relatively simple set-up of a couple on the run is bogged down with too many complications, tripping over flashbacks that kill the momentum of the story while attempting to catch up on previous events. Despite filling in these blanks and spending plenty of downtime with the duo, come the end they remain as unreadable as when first introduced.

The crux of the story follows the aftermath of a botched competition between two rival gangs to see who could steal more motorbikes. Tearing along the outskirts of the city on two wheels, tensions boil over as blood is spilt, events quickly escalate and Zhou ends up accidentally shooting a cop as he tries to escape. A significant bounty is put on his head by the police and the double-crossing shenanigans begin as gang members plot and scheme to get their hands on the money. Zhou is hoping to rendezvous with his estranged wife so she and her son can benefit from the reward, but Liu turns up instead to act as her replacement.

From the very moment the two meet there is a sense of mistrust and uncertainty and we’re never quite sure which side Lui is on, or whether she is trying to play them off each other to turn her own life around. A thinly written script and uneven pacing struggle to make things much clearer and for all the impressive visual work done elsewhere, the viewer isn’t given much of a reason to care either way. Moments of quiet are occasionally blasted away with exciting set pieces, but these are few and far between, and the minimal, lean-and-mean noir dialogue delivered by Liu and Zhou doesn’t offer too many clues.

Diao places his film in the underbelly of Chinese society, in sleazy, rundown locations populated by criminals with worn-down workers caught up in the middle. This allows The Wild Goose Lake to venture into pulp territory where heads are sliced off, semen is spat out and bad guys die thanks to creative use of an umbrella. The ruthlessness of the local police is also made apparent, although social critique seems light, if present at all. There’s more than enough in the film to enjoy, but it’s hard not to be frustrated that its full potential is never realised.

You can watch The Wild Goose Lake exclusively on MUBI from February 28.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

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