SFIFF Review: The Wild Goose Lake

This Chinese Neo-Noir has a Lot of Flash, But Doesn’t Add Up to Much More Than a Standard Thriller

It’s raining. Late night at a bus station, a woman approaches a man. Her face obscured by a opaque umbrella. It comes down revealing her body. She asks for a light, and then she asks for his name. He’s on the run.

Thus begins The Wild Goose Lake, a knotty, stylish thriller from Chinese director Diao Yinan. It’s a moment of perfect noir elegance, throwing together are morally dubious hero and questionably motivated femme fatale. And it serves as an emblem for the rest of the movie as well, intoxicatingly stylish, but incredibly familiar. A by the books crime story that can’t quite be saved by the exuberance of its images.

The man is Zhou Zengong (Hu Ge) a mob man who’s on the lam after a bit of gang warfare ends up with him shooting and killing a police officer. The woman is Liu Aiai (Kwai Lun-Mei) a prostitute who gets roped into the affair to find an effective to collect the reward money Zengong has racked up. As the law closes in, and underworld alliances shift, the two get drawn closer together as tragedy awaits around the corner.

It’s classic stuff, and perhaps a little too classic. Every story move of The Wild Goose Lake is more than expected, it’s practically required. From double crosses to romantic trysts, the yarn seems predetermined from the noir playbook. The film is certainly complex, with characters drifting in and out with little contextual set-up, but the beats they provide are well worn.

What saves this film is Diao’s thrilling sense of style and place. He vacillates between gritty realism, and bizarre surreality. Embellishing the crumbling cityscapes his characters inhabit with pockets of neon beauty and shadow play expressivity. Even if there feels like a lack in the plot and character department, Diao provides perhaps three of the best singular scenes I’ve witnessed in a film this year.

The style is elusive but immediate, establishing environments hued in grotesque colors and tangled geometries. And then the pieces are set: a gun, a knife, a bike, or an umbrella are scattered throughout the environment. There’s the clatter of city noises or an odd piece of music playing in the background (one incredibly sequence makes hilariously good use of Boney M.’s Rasputin”). Then Diao lights the fuse. The camera elegantly glides through corridors before settling on an image of violence or hurried escape. Image flash quickly across the screen for the viewer to create a puzzle of blood and combat before a matter of fact representation of the things come together. Diao’s style is unique blend of Hitchcock and removed documentation.

But these moves can’t really save the movie from wallowing in the tropes of the genre. For all the cut to the bone and expressionistic aesthetics, the film feels over languid. Working over time to establish a mood without concerns with it’s connection to the story it wants to tell. While there certainly are places for the mood first thriller, The Wild Goose Lake never amounts to anything more than a few incredibly well made sequences.