A lot of filmgoers think that style and substance sit on opposite ends of a spectrum on which all art can be placed. In this system, the best films lie clearly in or near the centre, with an appropriate balance of style and substance, and anything that teeters too far in either direction is to be chastised for its indulgent wanderings. It seems that throughout its history, anything that lays claim to art cinema has at its inception fallen victim to this whinge, from FW Murnau's 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' through to films like Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives', Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' and Nicolas Winding Refn's 'The Neon Demon'. But this system doesn't seem quite right to me.
'The Wild Goose Lake', the sophomore feature from Diao Yinan ('Black Coal, Thin Ice'), begins in classic noir fashion with a bloodied gang leader, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), on the run from the mob and the police, meeting a mysterious woman on a moodily neon-lit rain-soaked street that would put 'Blade Runner 2049' to shame (the film's Chinese title literally translates to "A Rendezvous at a Railway Station in the South"). The femme fatale is Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), a "bather" (a sex worker who plies her trade at one of Wuhan's lakes) employed by his boss, Hua Hua (Qi Dao). Like Zhou, we are unsure if she is offering assistance, laying a trap for rival crims or working for the cops.
We get some further explanation with a flashback to events from two days ago. It's an overly fussy but tightly-edited story that goes something like this: during a well-choreographed brawl over black market motorbikes, gang member Redhead shoots his rival, Cat's Eye. An attempt to broker peace (set in a hot pink hotel room with double beds) leads to the Olympic Games of Theft - two teams of six men attempting to steal as many motorbikes as possible, kind of like 'Gone In 60 Seconds' (minus Nicolas Cage).
This event leads to a surprising decapitation and the wounding of Zhou by his rivals. During his escape, crouched over the handlebars of a tiny bike, he shoots a police officer. From there, the momentum of the film begins in earnest as Zhou flees along the dark lakes of Wuhan.
That's the bulk of the story - the rest of the film is basically an episodic series of impressively-staged action sequences with glacially cool cinematography, while archetypical noir characters stare into the darkness and trade clipped dialogue. 'The Wild Goose Lake' can most easily be compared to Refn's work, particularly the 'Pusher' trilogy and 'Drive', which are about tough, low-level hoods who scrap their way through a narrowing set of choices. Like those films, the atmosphere is rich and menacing, so much so that viewers could probably tune out the narrative and still get on the proper wavelength.
Cinematographer Dong Jingsong, working with a full palette of colours and textures, supplies one unforgettable image after another, including a frantic mass shootout where all the gangsters are wearing glow-in-the-dark shoes.
Diao's film is primarily concerned with movement: its characters drift through the inky night and neon lighting, occasionally clashing against each other. Cinematographer Dong Jingsong, working with a full palette of colours and textures, supplies one unforgettable image after another, including a frantic mass shootout where all the gangsters are wearing glow-in-the-dark shoes and the most brutal umbrella assault since 'Once Upon A Time in China'.
To complete the otherworldly vibe, 'The Wild Goose Lake' features some Chinese censor-pushing sex scenes and uses dialogue in China's Wuhan dialect (the entire cast studied it in advance), unlike other Chinese movies that mostly features Mandarin.
Owing a debt not only to Refn, but to the Zen-like simplicity and nocturnal ambience of Walter Hill's 'The Driver' and Jean-Pierre Melville's 'Le Samourai', Diao's 'The Wild Goose Lake' may be little more than an exercise in style, but it's certainly a dazzling and mythic one.