The Wild Goose Lake Movie Review: Undeniably striking neo-noir that's more style than substance
While character sketches are clearly not director Diao Yinan's strength, there's no denying his flair for directing action
From the very first scene of Diao Yinan's The Wild Goose Lake, it's clear that we're in for a very stylish ride. The colours, the frames, the tone — it's all striking. Actually, even before the film opens, it immediately grabs us with the sounds. The titles roll over an electronic score with a retro feel and this runs right into the sounds of a downpour. We can feel the rain even before we see it. After setting the tone for the film with sound, Diao goes further and gives us one of the most noir opening scenes. Exterior of a train station, pouring rain, our protagonist Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is hiding in the shadows looking out for someone. Enter the femme fatale, Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-Mei), in a bright red sweater, her face hidden behind a semi-transparent umbrella (note this umbrella, for it returns later as the instrument in one of the most inventive kills in cinema). She folds up the umbrella, but we still don't get to see her face. Instead, the camera lingers around her hands, which open up her handbag and reach in for a cigarette — another hallmark of the genre. She walks over to Zhou (and we finally see her face), strikes up a cryptic conversation, telling him she's there to take his wife's place. He asks, "Should I trust you?"
This question is central to the film. We don't get an answer until the very end and it keeps the suspense, and our interest, alive. Gwei is really good in her part and her enigmatic air becomes the film. The mystery of Zhou and Liu's conversation too — what does she mean by taking his wife's place? — takes some time to unravel, but the way it does is more frustrating than satisfying. It all feels needlessly convoluted. We get one flashback from Zhou, which makes us understand who he is and why he's on the run — he's a motorcycle thief who accidentally shoots a cop. But we have to wait for Liu's flashback to figure out what her role is.
Director: Diao Yinan
Cast: Hu Ge, Gwei Lun-mei, Liao Fan, Wan Qian
In between the two, we cut to the police's efforts to find Zhou. This portion is decidedly less engaging and it would've been nice if at least some of it had been trimmed out in the nearly two-hour runtime. Diao, however, seems to want to draw a parallel between the cops and the motorcycle thieving gangs. With plainclothes cops being deployed to track down Zhou, there are clear similarities in the way they congregate, have meetings, decide roles, and even ride bikes. While this is interesting, it ends up diluting the narrative and taking focus away from Hu and Gwei, who are the only actors who really register in our minds. And even they aren't much more than stereotypes. This works in Gwei's favour since she plays a femme fatale and an air of mystery goes with the role. Hu doesn't have that going for him and it's hard to root for his Zhou or really care for him beyond a point.
While character sketches are clearly not Diao's strength, there's no denying his flair for directing action. Every action sequence is innovative in some form or the other. The biggest pull of The Wild Goose Lake is, without a doubt, Dong Jinsong's cinematography. Every single frame is breathtaking — yellows and neon predominate — and the way people in motion are captured — whether on bikes, foot, or dancing to Boney M's Rasputin — is pure poetry. And for this, if nothing else, Diao's film is worth a watch. You may not remember the characters or themes of the film long after it's over, but the images will definitely stay with you.
(The Wild Goose Lake premieres on March 19 at 9 pm as part of &PrivéHD’s ‘Privé World Box Office’)