It’s hard to write about this Chinese-produced, Golden-Bear-winning film festival staple without talking about noir. The monochromatic English title hints at the film’s debt to the genre: a series of gruesome, unsolved murders; an alcoholic, disgraced detective; an enigmatic, beautiful femme fatale; an overarching sense of uncertainty. But the Chinese title – Bai Ri Yan Huo, or “Daylight Fireworks” – suggests that director Diao Yinan is not merely interested in recreating noir tropes in a Chinese setting, a conclusion confirmed by the film’s captivating and confusing conclusion (recalling Beau Travail).
Noir protagonists tend to equal parts headstrong and oblivious, strongarming their way into mysteries they don’t fully understand until the film reaches its climax. This is true of Black Coal, Thin Ice’s Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) ex-cop, true, but we’re left equally in the dark as the film navigates its story with a stop-start pacing, interrupting languorous moments with unexpected violence, truncating action scenes and consistently obscuring narrative detail.
The film’s chief appeal is aesthetic. Yinan demonstrates a knack for striking compositions somewhere on the stylistic continuum between the deep shadows of noir and the grubby authenticity of modern realism, as though we’re looking onto a nocturnal cityscape through a smeared, icy window.