This Chinese thriller has all the elements of film noir: a femme fatale, double-crossing friends, cigarettes, night scenes in rain and fog, flashbacks, a not-so-savory protagonist. It also has elements of contemporary action movies: high-speed chases, chaotic fights where one can’t discern who’s fighting whom, shootings and knifings, unlikely escapes. Mixing classic noir with modern action, “The Wild Goose Lake” underscores its visual—and moral—murkiness with superb cinematography and its setting in a strange resort city by a lake, a city known for its own codes and hiding places, a kind of rural Las Vegas.
Zenong Zhou (Ge Hu, wildly famous in China) appears in the first scene bloodied and beaten, skulking around a concrete jungle, with a Brutalist train station and late-night noodle-shop in his sights. He’s met by a stranger with closely cropped black hair, wearing a bright red sweater. Aiai Liu (Gwei Lun-Mei) lets us know immediately we’re in noir territory with her close-to-corny first line, “Hey, got a light?” Zenong, after asking Liu, “Can I trust you?” (noir fans should know the answer to that one), begins to explain his predicament, which starts with a flashback.
In a hotel basement meeting of motorbike thieves, Zenong, a mere 48 hours earlier, is cocky and in control, the leader of one of the gangs or “families” (echoing Mafia lingo) which are dividing territory among themselves. After a dispute goes awry and a member of a competing gang gets shot, the über-boss sets up a competition between the two warring families: which can steal the most motorbikes in two hours. And so begins the interweaving of the modern action film with noir, except in “The Wild Goose Lake” the chases feature motor scooters rather than cars. (If you think motor scooter chases aren’t as good as car chases, think again.)
The chases feature motor scooters rather than cars.
In the course of this fateful night, Zenong will accidentally kill a policeman, putting him on the lam. Liu, who is also a “bathing beauty”/prostitute at the lake, seems to be there to help him. There could be a nascent, enigmatic love story here, as Liu seems to fall for the small-time mobster. But his wife (Regina Wan)—whom he’s not seen for five years—and child take precedence.
The rival gang doesn’t play fair, and it’s not clear whose side one of the bosses, Hua Hua (Dao Qi), who seems to be negotiating the deal with Zenong’s wife, is on. In one of many surreal scenes, Hua Hua shows up line-dancing, in tight, red cropped pants and Day-Glo-rimmed shoes. Add Asian night-markets, a zoo scene with elephants and tigers and an owl, an enormous fabric factory floor, a fun house, and that Brutalist train station, and you have some feel for the film’s fascinating mise-en-scene.
Led by an enigmatic Captain Liu (Fan Liao), the police, also on motor scooters, are in hot—but not so clever—pursuit. In a scene evoking the crowd of thieves in the basement at the beginning of the film, dozens of police gather in a room to learn their assignments in apprehending the cop-killer, dividing their territory as the thieves did theirs. Many of the police raise their hands to admit they’ve never fired a gun and need practice. Later, as the cops close in on the killer, their tactics bring on the condemnation of the local citizens. In other words, they are little better than the gang families.
Zenong is a mobster with some heart.
Zenong is a mobster with some heart. There’s a suggestion he wants his wife and child to benefit from the reward if he’s turned in, and he kills a thug who rapes Liu. He’s a small-time hood with more morality to him than the opposing gang, which engages in sadistic killings and makes sexual jokes about his epileptic wife. He’s an appropriate protagonist for these times, a barely moral man in an immoral and amoral universe where the authorities hold little sway. He’s no Robin Hood, no Rick from “Casablanca” (1942), no Walter Neff (“Double Indemnity,” 1944). And yet, writer and director Yi’nan Diao (who won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival for his 2014 “Black Coal, Thin Ice”) makes us care about him, even root for him to escape, which he does multiple times, improbably.
The cinematography, especially in use of night scenes and color—another variation on noir, which originated as a black and white style—has won nominations and awards for cinematographer Jingsong Dong. “The Wild Goose Lake” is entertaining in its action scenes and as a thriller. Diao’s film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, a sign of its success in plumbing the classics to exploit this neo-noir genre.
Date: 2019 (US release 2020)
“The Wild Goose Lake” ★★★ (out of 4 stars)
Director: Yi’nan Diao
Starring: Ge Hu, Gwei Lun-Mei, Dao Qi, Regina Wan, Fan Liao
Country: China, France
Languages: Chinese (Wuhan dialect), subtitled in English
Runtime: 113 minutes
Availability: For rent or purchase Amazon, Fandago Now and elsewhere; see JustWatch here.