Chaos and desperation are about as far as it’s possible to get from the image of the modern China the nation’s cinema has been keen to project, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves in the murky world of The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Nánfāng Chēzhàn de Jùhuì). Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice followup finds the director in much the same territory only this time embracing the absurdity of existential flight as his twin heroes seek impossible escape in the garish neon of a provincial underworld.
Diao opens on the rain-drenched streets as sullen gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) waits impatiently for a rendezvous with his estranged wife Shujun (Wan Qian), only to be met by a stranger – “bathing beauty” Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), who explains she won’t be coming. A lengthy flashback reveals that Zenong is currently on the run after getting embroiled in a dispute over turf assignments at some kind of gangster briefing session during in which one of his guys shot one of the Cat brothers’ men in the leg. To settle the matter, the boss proposes a good old-fashioned competition to see who can nick the most bikes in one night with the winner getting the prime spot, but Zenong doesn’t know he’s been set up and mistakenly kills a policeman after being attacked by Cat Eyes. Realising there’s no longer any way out for him, Zenong’s last hope is to keep the police at bay long enough to get back in touch with his wife and convince her to turn him in to the police so that she can claim the reward money.
Like many men of his generation, Zenong couldn’t find the kind of honest work that would allow him to provide for his family and so he left home. Too ashamed to own his no-good gangster ways, he stayed away for five years but all that’s on his mind is family and this is the only chance that he will ever have to provide for them. Shujun isn’t even really sure she wants anything to do with her absentee husband, but is dragged back into his orbit once again harassed by the police every step of the way.
In striking contrast to most Chinese crime dramas, these police are far from a force for order. Describing Wild Goose Lake as a lawless land, they have their very own briefing to formulate a plan to catch Zenong but aren’t averse to underhanded tactics like threatening Shujun and trying to undermine her attachment to her husband through a fabricated story about a pregnant girlfriend. The line between cop and thug isn’t so thick as you’d think it would be, and you can’t trust the police any more than brotherhood or honour amongst thieves.
Devoid of morality, Wild Goose Lake is indeed a chaotic place defined by shifting loyalties and unexpected betrayals. Fights break out without warning, plans change, and there are no safe spaces. Bumbling as they are, the police are everywhere watching everything and trying to blend in. Anyone might be a cop, or secretly working against you. Zenong is on the classic wrong man path, except that he’s the right man and he knows it. He might not have pulled the trigger if he knew it was a policeman he was firing at, but pull the trigger he did and now he’ll have to make peace with it. Trying to outrun the law only so long as to subvert it, he finds himself slipping past checkpoints distracted by pointless officiousness and consistently evading the net.
When Shujun is unable to make it to the rendezvous, Aiai offers to take her place by turning Zenong in and claiming the reward money to pass it on to Zenong’s wife (minus a small fee), meaning they will need to trust each other until the mission is completed. Aiai, a dejected young woman supplementing her income with casual sex work as one of the “bathing beauties” found at the lake, longs to escape her dead end existence, eventually telling the policeman she’d use the reward money to open a small store back in her hometown. Like Shujun, she lives in a fiercely patriarchal, unforgiving society from which there is little sign of escape or independence. Yet, as afraid of everything Zenong represents as she eventually becomes, Aiai remains steadfast and true, keeping her promise and paving the way towards a brighter future for Shujun and her son away from the haphazard chaos of Wild Goose Lake. An absurdist fable drenched in neon, Diao’s conception of life on the margins of provincial China is as bleak as they come but eventually finds space for positivity on returning to a world more ordinary in which two women walk away from the traumatic past arm in arm and the law has to be content to let them go.
International trailer (English captions)