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“All films about crime are about capitalism,” blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky once said. Diao Yinan (Black Coal, Thin Ice; Night Train) is one of a growing handful of contemporary Chinese filmmakers, alongside Vivian Qu, Xin Yukun, and even recent films by Jia Zhangke, proving the old axiom immortal. His film The Wild Goose Lake is the latest to smuggle a critique of inequality, surveillance, and the police state under the guise of genre. A tale of warring biker gangs and a hefty, state-sponsored finder’s fee for whoever can help the police capture the cop-killer among them, Wild Goose is as sly and serious as a classic noir, all flashbacks and fatalism punctuated by cigarette breaks and romps through seedy alleyways, scheming lovers, and a seemingly endless array of double-crossings.
Wild Goose can be tough to follow. Characters almost always know more than the audience — at one point, Diao uses the roar of a passing train to render unintelligible a plan that will set forth the film’s climax — and very little separates criminal from cop in action or appearance. On that point, it is worth noting that China’s censorship is most thorough in the script stage (hence the prominent place of Chinese documentaries on the festival circuit), but on the screen directors can choose to emphasize or downplay particular actions, delay identifying characters or take any number of similar actions that will impart vastly different ideas to viewers than script-readers. Accordingly, the observational, sociological scenes, including a trip to a factory, chases through pool halls and gambling rings, the focus on sex work, and a police raid on a seedy hotel housing the underclasses become incisive critiques of class stratification. The film gets a tad repetitive down the stretch, but Wild Goose proves smart genre cinema is alive and well for those who know where to look for it.
The Wild Goose Lake (2019), dir. Diao Yinan, will screen on Sept. 29 and Oct. 1 at Film at Lincoln Center (165 W. 65th Street), as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.