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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Wild Goose Lake’: Chinese noir at its darkest

Dan Webster

As we enter another week of quarantine, those of us who are fortunate enough to have places to live, enough money to buy the things we need and to still have our good health soldier on — something like the character that Bill Murray plays in "Groundhog Day."

I find myself humming "I Got You Babe" every morning as I make coffee.

And since I'm among the fortunate ones to still have a job, which is to write about movies, that's what I continue to do. And this week, I'm writing about the Chinese film "The Wild Goose Lake," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

Every country has its dark side. Cinema tells us that much.

Just consider the many law-and-order sagas that are possible to watch through a variety of streaming sources, whether they involve Italian mobsters, Danish serial killers, Mexican drug lords or the worst of U.S. corporate criminals.

Wait, wait, sorry about including that last group. I was confusing the movies I’ve been watching with the headlines taken from daily news reports.

Getting back to movies, though, one of the best films that I saw in 2019 was Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White,” which is the tale of a low-level gangster and the woman he wrongs – all set against the backdrop of a China that is changing faster than you can say cultural revolution.

I was reminded of Zia’s film this past week as I watched “The Wild Goose Lake,” a Film Movement feature that I streamed through the Magic Lantern Theater.

Written and directed by Diao Yi'nan, “The Wild Goose Lake” has a noir plot that should feel recognizable to anyone familiar with the works of Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray or Sam Fuller. It involves a gangster just released from prison who tries to step back into his old life – yet, as is typically the case, he finds himself being challenged by younger guys with more ambition than brains.

The result is a violent clash that ends up embroiling the police and which sets our protagonist – a weary guy named Zhao Zenong – against not only the authorities, who offer a hefty reward for his capture, but also his rival mobsters who look to cash in at his expense.

Before he even knows what’s happening, Zhao finds himself on the run – wounded and desperate, skulking through the night while trying somehow to connect with his estranged wife.

The connection he seeks to make comes through one of the most standard noir plot devices of all: a mysterious woman. In this case, she’s not a Barbra Stanwyck or Lana Turner but an androgynous so-called “bathing beauty” – a euphemism for prostitute – whose motives, unsurprisingly, are hard to figure out. 

If that scenario were all “The Wild Goose Lake” had to offer, it would still be worth watching. But Diao is interested in more than merely telling the story of a doomed mobster.

He may not have Zia’s pressing desire to make larger comments about contemporary Chinese culture, especially how its 21st-century economy literally is changing the country’s very face. The devastation affecting the river communities being flooded by, say, the Three Gorges Dam project is, after all, a central feature of Zia’s “Ash Is Purest White.”

But Diao isn’t content just to make an engaging story, either, no matter how poignant. Some aspects of “The Wild Goose Lake” actually feel more than a bit confusing – which may or may not be due to certain plot points getting lost in translation but certainly do have to do with the film’s tendency to bend chronology in ways that aren’t always easy to follow.

What Diao attends to most of all is his shot selection. Whether he’s filming Zhao standing in the shadows of a train station late on a rainy night, framing Zhao and the mystery woman together in a way that feels like something dreamed up by the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni, or staging an ongoing shootout with an ever-increasing feeling of futility, Diao matches whatever substance he’s attempting to achieve with a clear sense of personal style.

Oh, and in terms of substance, give him this much. Like all the great purveyors of noir, Diao provides his film’s ending with a quality that, though it comes unexpectedly, ends up feeling as natural as Jake Gittes being stung not once, but twice, in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”

The quality in question? A staple even more intrinsic to noir than darkness itself.