Cannes 2019: With solid performances, The Wild Goose Lake leaves no breathing space for tedium
Even if one forgets The Wild Goose Lake’s premise long after the movie is over, its inventive imagery will stay with you for longer.
A slender girl in a pixie cut and a handsome man with a slash wound on his face meet under a decrepit train station on a rainy night in director Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake. Fresh after his success at Berlinale in 2014, where his investigative thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice scooped up the Golden Bear, Yinan’s Cannes competition entry is a tautly written and executed, gritty Chinese noir woven into a breathlessly fast-paced narrative.
The man, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), is on the run for having mistakenly shot and killed a cop. This fact is established in an electrifying flashback scene in a garage where lessons on stealing motorbikes are being taught. A bloody gang-war breaks out and this conflict sets the stage for the movie. In the ensuing chaos and a chasing scene later, Zenong kills a cop. The girl, Liu Aiai (played by Gwei Lun-mei from Black Coal, Thin Ice), who is a bathing beauty (euphemism for a sex worker on a beach) is Zenong’s connection to his wife.
By now Zenong has a ¥300,000 bounty to his head, the prize money that he wishes should go to his wife if Aiai turned him in. With this goal in mind, the couple navigate the tense geography in search of an agreeable circumstance for his surrender before he’s nabbed by the cops. A police contingent is already close on his heels, headed by Captain Liu (Liao Fan, also from Black Coal, Thin Ice) and inching in on him.
As Zenong and Aiai get entangled deep in the wild goose chase, in classic noir style, nothing is as it seems in The Wild Goose Lake - Aiai’s trustworthiness is a constant source of mystery and Zenong’s wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian) is forced to hide a tracking device in her bag before meeting Aiai.
The struggle to plot a fugitive-on-the-run tale with no questionable holes is very real, especially in a tightly surveilled country like China where no inch of the territory seems far from the prying eyes of a security camera. Yinan’s finds inventive ways to navigate this reality – his subjects ditch mobile phones for messenger-fed information and they meet at suburban train stations at odd hours to avoid police search. Thanks to such meticulous attention to detail, even under such limited leeway, the narrative gets tantalisingly tighter.
Cinematographer Dong Jinsong brings the grit and grime of China’s third-tier cities, Wuhan in this case with inventive imagery, ensuring the movie is visually rich and grungy. On its high-speed trajectory, the plot is peppered with interesting vignettes of life in small city China – the labyrinths that host rich underground ponzi schemes, references to connections between gangsters and illegal guns on the internet, and an Olympic game of motorcycle theft.
In a group session that dissects methods on hunting down Zenong, where Captain Liu heads he discussion, one officer asks: “Where can we practice our guns? We have never had the chance to shoot it.” It’s perhaps an offhanded statement meant to provoke laughs, but it’s also brief testament to a largely peaceful Chinese society where oppressive surveillance has also eradicated violence.
The dark and gritty imagery with interesting use of shadow play and silhouettes render a somewhat peripatetic quality to the narrative dominated by the familiar tropes of a cat and mouse game employed in thrillers. Even if one forgets The Wild Goose Lake’s premise long after the movie is over, its inventive imagery will stay with you for longer. Picture these; a weird ASMR type noodle slurping penultimate scene, an almost clinical sex scene on the boat between the leads that culminates in Liu spitting out gunk into the river, a dance practice in the night in a market with participants wearing light-up shoes that blink (this scene is followed by another shootout that amplifies the surreal nature of the setting). These scenes both accelerate the film’s pace and act as haunting style elements.
The Wild Goose Lake concludes somewhat predictably but solid performances from its lead actors and a pacing that leaves no breathing space ensure that not a moment of tedium creeps in during its running time. Negotiating squalid lives in the warrens of a Chinese city and sprinkled with biting social commentary, The Wild Goose Lake is one movie the outside world will get to see for a long time with a unique setting that runs across the underbelly of semi-urban China.