Chinese film “The Wild Goose Lake” is a slow but stylish crime drama packed with tangible atmosphere and palpable seedy realism. Although I felt rather distant to its story and characters throughout its 110-minute running time, I also could not help but admire a number of impressive visual moments in the film, and it is certainly another notable work from one of the interesting filmmakers working in China at present
The movie opens with a meeting between two different people at a train station in Wuhan (The original Chinese title of the movie is “Meeting at the South Train Station”, by the way). When Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for someone in front of the concrete station building during one hot and humid summer night, a young woman named Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) approaches to him for telling him something, though she is not the one for whom he is waiting.
As they talk more with each other, Zhou reminisces about how he happens to be pursued by the police at present. A few days ago, there was a local feud between a small criminal organization led by him and one of many other local gang organizations in Wuhan when they all gathered together for deciding on how to divide their areas among themselves, and that eventually led to a petty showdown between Zhou’s organization and that organization in question, which unfortunately culminated to a gruesome case of beheading.
While he managed to survive despite getting shot by one of his enemies, Zhou inadvertently killed a police officer during his following desperate escape, and he quickly became a wanted man with a considerable amount of bounty put upon him. As a result, he has to evade not only those numerous cops and police officers eager to catch him alive or dead but also many untrustworthy figures in his underworld.
The police search team led by Captain Liu (Liao Fan) has particularly focused on the area surrounding the Wild Goose Lake, where Liu and many other poor women earn their living as ‘bathing beauties’. Under the management of a pimp who is incidentally Zhou’s old friend, Liu and these women often wander around in the lake beaches for attracting their latest clients, and we later see Liu and several other fellow bathing beauties spending some time with their drunken clients on a small motorboat belonging to their pimp.
Although the movie does not emphasize directly to us, the economic hardships in the world of them and many other poor people are evident on the screen, and their seedy environment is often accentuated by the drab texture of concrete buildings, which are usually lighted by colorful neon and fluorescent lights. Thanks to cinematographer Dong Jinsong, who previously collaborated with director/writer Diao Yinan in “Black Coal, Thin Ice” (2014), the movie is constantly filled with visual prowess, and I was especially mesmerized by a calm but increasingly tense sequence which memorably shows a bunch of figures dancing on the ground while wearing fluorescent shoes.
The story slowly becomes bitterly ironic as Zhou comes to reveal the reason why he wants to see a certain person right now. Probably because of his lifelong regret for not having done much for that person, he concocts a plan which will probably benefit that person a lot, but he is still reluctant to follow his plan, even though he is well aware that there is only one way out for him if he does not give himself up to the police.
As its hero becomes more desperate hour by hour, the movie exudes more of that fatalistic mood of film noir while throwing some twists into his complicated situation. While the police search team is still one or two steps behind Zhou, Zhou finds himself more cornered due to some of his criminal associates, and, not so surprisingly, Liu turns out to be not as innocent as she seemed at first. She shows some compassion and kindness to Zhou, and there is a tender moment when she and Zhou happen to spend a night together alone on the lake, but the following moment harshly breaks up our impression on whatever has been developed between them.
In the end, the movie arrives at an inevitable narrative point as expected, and Diao and his crew members deliver a superlative climactic sequence mainly unfolded within a big shabby concrete apartment building. While still sticking to its detached attitude, the movie continues to dazzle us with small and big details observed from here and there in and around the building, and I assure you that you will not forget easily a certain shocking moment involved with an umbrella.
Compared to the icy and stark atmosphere of his previous film “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, “The Wild Goose Lake” is surely an interesting change of direction for Diao, and he succeeds as well as intended while still maintaining his own austere handling of story, mood, and performance. The movie a commendable genre exercise on the whole, and the main cast members of the film including Hu Ge, Gwei Lun-mei, Lio Fan, and Wan Qian seamlessly inhabit its seedy noirish background as filling their archetype roles as much as demanded. Yes, this is your average slow arthouse flick, but you may be satisfied as much as I was – if you keep in mind what and how it is about.