On a wet night at a station on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Wuhan, a man with cuts on his face is approached by a woman with a plastic see-through umbrella. He is Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), the fugitive leader of a local gang of motorcycle thieves; she is Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-Mei), an apparent ally. For Zhou, everything began to go wrong two nights ago, when one of his henchmen shot the rival gang leader, Cat’s Ear, in the knee with a flare gun at a meeting in the basement of the Xingqindu Hotel. The local boss wanted Zhou and Cat’s Ear’s twin brother, Cat’s Eye, to settle the matter with a contest to see whose gang could steal the most scooters. But that ended badly, with a gangster named Redhead lying decapitated in an industrial yard and Zhou on the run after killing a cop that he mistook for one of Cat’s Eye’s gunmen.
With the authorities offering a 300,000 yuan reward for his capture, Zhou has not only resigned himself to his fate, but found in it a path to personal redemption. Now all he needs is to find someone he can trust to give him up to the police, claim the reward money, and give it to the wife and son he abandoned for a life of crime. Such is the basic setup of Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, though as with any movie that runs on moody stylization and a sense of surprise, it doesn’t begin to convey the film’s peculiarities and surface delights—among them its absurdist humor and nocturnal palette of tacky LED purples and greens. Character psychology appears to be a distant concern in this hash of genre archetypes, romanticized visual interludes, and gags.
Diao is no stranger to stories of opaque motivations and death drives. The writer-director’s last film, Black Coal, Thin Ice, about an alcoholic ex-cop who gets involved with a black-widow femme fatale, was a premier example of mainland Chinese noir. In many respects, The Wild Goose Lake feels like an attempt to cover every trope that has defined that subgenre in recent years: the specific historical context (it’s set over a few days in July of 2012); the backwater vibe of its portrayal of criminal doings at the edge of a city with a population roughly comparable to that of London or New York City; the equally nostalgic and ironic use of kitschy foreign dance pop, in this case the Boney M. earworm “Rasputin” and the eponymous Eurovision entry by the disco novelty act Dschinghis Khan.
The result (which might be self-conscious to a fault) never approaches the novelistic ambition of Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White or the pure dreaminess of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, to name two more successful attempts at expanding on the mainland noir. Part of the problem comes down to the disconnect between the way the movie sentimentalizes Zhou’s plan and the way it detaches itself from the characters whose point of view it adopts at various times, including Zhou, Liu Aiai, a local police captain (Liao Fan, who co-starred in both Black Coal, Thin Ice and Ash Is Purest White), and Huahua (Qi Dao), a pimp who operates on the beaches of Wild Goose Lake.
Diao’s attempts to create an atmosphere of romantic symbolism reminiscent of the ’90s films of Wong Kar-wai fills the movie with longueurs that sometimes verge on parody. Much more accomplished is his depiction of both cops and crooks, which offers up its own surreal and grotesque imagery while recalling two very different Japanese influences in the gangster genre: the scrimmaging violence of Kinji Fukasaku and the wry deadpan of Takeshi Kitano. In The Wild Goose Lake, he offers up a gangster battle royale in which a combatant’s prosthetic leg gets pulled off while a woman munches on a cucumber in the sidelines; a nighttime police raid on a zoo; and the sight of undercover cops in light-up sneakers converging around the body of a gangster after a shoot-out before posing for a group photo with the corpse.
One could argue that Diao’s treatment of violence is where he has really distinguished himself as a director. The hair salon shoot-out at the beginning of Black Coal, Thin Ice was a lesson in how to subvert the form—a series of deadly fumbles and delayed reactions captured mostly in a single omniscient high-angle shot. He pulls off the same trick a few times in The Wild Goose Lake, cutting to an extreme wide shot to turn gunplay and brawling into tragicomedy. But he also presents a different kind of intentional ridiculousness in bursts of gruesome bloodletting and dismemberment, of which the aforementioned decapitation is only one example.
What it all adds up to has some of the unevenness of a nightmare, the belly sweat and oscillating fans of muggy summer heat mixed up with unrealities. The outer Wuhan of The Wild Goose Lake is a world that is still under construction; even Zhou’s conflict with the Cat’s brothers comes down to the latter being assigned a territory that’s still being redeveloped. Diao gives us glances of its emptiness, following characters on scooters down long stretches of semi-deserted road, and envisioning a multistory hotel that has been taken over by gangsters due to an absence of actual guests, the rooms washed by the fuchsia glow of the oversized sign. Even if one’s interest in the story occasionally wanes, it’s an environment that continues to intrigue.