The Wild Goose Lake is a weird, gritty and stylish Chinese noir.
The English title of Diao Yinan’s new crime drama, which competed earlier this year at Cannes, purposefully brings to mind the phrase ‘wild goose chase’. The story follows fugitive gangster Zhou Zenong (played by television actor Hu Ge) as he is chased down by rival bikie gangs, the police, and seemingly the whole of Wuhan, a city in central China filled with giant lakes.
The original title of the film translates literally as ‘A Rendezvous at the Station in the South’, and this is the scenario in which Diao throws us into his twisty tale. It’s at this mysterious station, supposedly in Wuhan’s south near a Wild Goose Lake, that Zhou meets prostitute Liu Ai’ai (played by Gwei Lun-mei), whose loyalties are unclear.
Director Diao then complicates things by jumping back and forth between multiple timelines. Liao Fan (from Jia Zhangke’s excellent Ash is Purest White) plays the police captain sent in to track down Zhou.
Fatalism is at the heart of The Wild Goose Lake. From our knowledge of film noir tropes, we can sense from the beginning that Zhou Zenong is probably not going to have a happy ending. His is a world of deception and double-crosses; the jiang hu underworld that is rarely depicted on film. Diao is fascinated by this world, and as with his last film - Berlinale Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice - he places all the recognisable film noir features into the grungy urban surrounds in one of China’s modern metropolises. He examines the characters’ social milieu, which tells us all we need to know about their lives and ambitions.
Liu Ai’ai is the film’s femme fatale. We never know who she is trying to help, but one thing is clear: her world is one of suffering, deeply internalised yet always present on the surface. It’s of note that each performance here, including Gwei Lun-mei’s, is understated and often hard to read, but it seems like that’s the intention. Diao Yinan is interested in the surface, of presenting his characters as clean slates that perhaps reflect the emotions we project onto them. They’re too beaten down by life to express their own. Their currency is sex and violence, explored here in the Freudian sense as what motivates their actions.
Like Nicolas Winding Refn, Diao takes B-movie elements and injects it with his arthouse sensibility. The film moves along methodically, and almost every scene features some sort of bold cinematographic or editorial choice. Director of photography Dong Jingsong cements himself as a leading manipulator of light and shadow, following his groundbreaking 3D work on last year’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. There are magnificent tracking shots that wander along the streets, ratcheting up tension until a tipping point.
There are also surreal inflections in the film. Some gorgeous imagery involving wild animals is present, but also a weird musical sequence that I don’t know belongs in the story or not. And, I have to admit, unfortunately there were 20 minutes around the middle of the film that I had no idea who was on whose side or which gang member was double crossing the other.
Some of Diao’s direction in this section may have been purposefully alienating which is frustrating, but it all pays off in a surprisingly moving postlude in which he offers solace not to any of the gang members or police officers, but to the film’s only two female characters. It’s a tender moment, unexpectedly moving, akin to Tarantino’s treatment of Sharon Tate’s story in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
All in all, The Wild Goose Lake is like a perverse rendition of that Stanley Kramer film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Except here… it’s sad, sad, sad, sad.