From the start of Diao Yinan’s crime noir, it’s clear that the movie is destined for a sad ending. The rain pours in the first few minutes of The Wild Goose Lake. It comes down like a constant shattering, so much so that it’s almost difficult to discern Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) and Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei)’s hushed voices amid the rainfall.
Zhou is a gangster who wants to help his estranged wife out, so he hatches a plan that ends with her getting a bunch of reward money for turning him over to the police. In order to pull off his delicate scheme — the police can’t catch him too soon, or his wife won’t get the money, and the mob is also after him — he enlists the aid of Liu, a “bathing beauty” (a sex worker who works by the lake).
If a film’s fate is already known from the start, then the director needs to figure out a way to keep the suspense alive. Some of this comes across in brief moments of macabre humor: When a group of gangsters hold an underground meeting in Wuhan, a fight breaks out; The Wild Goose Lake splices together clips of crotch-grabbing, leg-twisting, chair-breaking madness, all set to a steady, non-diegetic drum beat. Some of the sustained drama comes across in just pure horror: A man is decapitated after accidentally driving his motorcycle headfirst into a long blade, while his necklace is caught on the knife, still gently swinging after his head is lopped off. At another point, someone spears a clear umbrella through another person’s gut, opening it to reveal the blood splatter on its plastic. The Wild Goose Lake carries the kind of imagination that taps into terrifying, violent possibilities.
2020 Winter Arts Preview
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But a key player in The Wild Goose Lake’s suspense is the paranoia-driven sound editing. Gunshots, or sounds that imitate gunshots, serve as auditory motifs throughout the film, ringing out when you least expect it, constantly making you unsure if it’s gunfire, or a child kicking a soccer ball. Gwei depicts the anxiety with vividness, her stellar face-acting articulating much of what the audience feels in these tense moments and quiet chases. Gwei’s acting, paired with steadily moving camera shots and moodily colored lighting, render a strong emotional core to The Wild Goose Lake.
Diao’s noir is always in a state of disquiet. It’s also a little bit bizarre at times, inserting props that become peculiar from their situations: dozens of light-up shoes on disguised cops, a harsh light shines on a tiger’s shocked face, a closeup reveals a knife hidden in a wad of cash. It’s little pieces like these that add to the haunting, apprehensive air of The Wild Goose Lake.
Seeing The Wild Goose Lake as part of San Francisco’s Independent Film Festival is also a rare chance to hear the Wuhan dialect in an American theater. Hu, Gwei, and many of the other main actors aren’t native speakers of the dialect. They had to study for months with a coach before shooting.
Watching The Wild Goose Lake is also surprising for other larger political reasons. It’s a pretty explicit critique of police in China, something that Clarence Tsui of the South China Morning Post pointed out when it first screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival — the only Chinese language film to compete in the prestigious festival for that year. Given the country’s censorship laws, Tsui argues, it’s just surprising that such a film could have come to fruition.
Opens Feb. 12 at the Roxie.
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Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.