Like Hong Kong filmmakers Johhny To and John Woo, Chinese filmmaker Diao Yi’nan is one of Asian cinemas strongest talents of crime thrillers, infusing most of his films with ravishing aesthetics and quintessentially film noir themes, motifs, narrative structures, and visuals. Nevertheless, particular in his latest film “The Wild Goose Lake”, in which the striking style often triumphs over a narrative that echoes many classic films including Carol Reed’s 1950 masterpiece “The Third Man,” along with many other American film noir films from the 40s.
The story centers mainly on two layered and morally ambiguous characters: a mysterious criminal meets a stunningly beautiful woman in late hours, their encounter is just as damp as the recent downpour. Zhau (Hu) is a gangster on the run from both the police and another gang after he accidentally kills an undercover police officer: Liu (Gwei) is a sex worker that is sent by Zhou’s old bosses to inform him that his wife is under deep surveillance and that she will not be joining him.
That drives the narrative forward, as Zhou recounts what led to his current circumstances though a flashback that involves some breathtaking action scenes that consists of shootouts, martial arts choreography, and of course extended chase sequences. “The Wild Goose Lake’s” most impressive attraction is of course the cinematography by Dong Jingson (who was one of the thee cinematographers on Bi Gan’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night).
The use of lighting in the film is striking as the wet streets are bathed in neon and luminous lights that are motivated by florescent and neon street lights, led lights on mopeds, and we even get an impressive tracking shot of citizens dancing to music with the neon glow underneath their sneakers. The action scenes are also awe-inspiring as they are shot mostly in wide shots with expertly crafted choreography. The first brawl in the film is shot on a wide lens on a high angle on a locked-down camera in a underground room where the shots are static, this stylistic choice gives it a more vivid physicality than just going handheld like most modern action films do.
As noted, “The Wild Goose Lake” is strongly constructed by the visual language of film noir. The film’s rich and vivid colors feels as if its lit like a black-and-white film–especially in all the exteriors, which holds so much vibrant colors. Jingson takes a similar approach to lighting the interiors, normally lit with fluorescent, thus creating a wash of light with high tension that visually compares to the work of Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” and “Too Old To Die Young.” Jingson uses direct light and shadows to add striking texture to the atmospheres.
The film is also shaped with some impressive visual abstractions, combined with moist settings, adds to the films elliptical nature. A shootout occurs at a zoo that consists of artful close-ups and extreme close-ups of tigers and elephants, followed by a beach town that has carnival attractions. Yet Yi’nan also merges the illusive with the grim, which almost makes the film tonally jarring and uneven. It’s almost you see styles colliding with each other, preventing the film from being fully realized and truly consistent.
This being a Asian crime picture tailored made with art-house sensibilities, “The Wild Goose Lake” is lavishly dense with influences to other directors. Taking inspiration from Orson Welles, Nicholas Refn and even borrowing a page or two from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie”, the use of red, purples and pinks are the predominate color settings. Whenever these abundant colors hit the screen, it truly stands out. Yi’nan utilizes these colors as a sign of risk and danger, with violence and doom being the most apparent motivation with the color red.
The films narrative is also a little muddled, it took me a few viewings to watch and comprehend the dense and layered narrative structure. The repeat viewing made it even more of an impressive viewing because you will be able to explore and process the technique and craftsmanship in greater detail. Yi’nan is working on the tropes of the film noir, in which we will be on a journey of the unfortunate Mr. Zhao. Like the fall guy he plays victim to the later of love, conflicted desires, and even lured into some seduction by Liu.
Another subplot involves the story involving Captain Liu (Liao Fan), who runs an army of undercover police overs in normal cloches to travel to Wild Goose Lake to track down Zhao’s whereabouts. A large reward is placed on Zhao, who longs for his distant wife, Shujun (Qian Wan), who is under severe watch, and is pressured by the authorities to turn him in once she encounters him.
It is indeed a man’s world filled with violence and betrayal, yet it’s the women who really draw you in. Liu, who holds a striking screen presence delivers a mystique and fascinating performance. She has a Jean Seberg quality with her short hair, most noticeably the casting is a clear homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 masterpiece “Breathless”–which also deconstructed film noir tropes and styles. All around, “The Wild Goose Lake” is a deeply artful, exhilarating and highly engrossing modern crime film, one of the most impressive suspense drawers you’re likely to experience this year.