VIFF 2019: The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019)


One of the most anticipated Chinese titles of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival is Diao Yinan’s follow-up to his Berlin winning 2014 film Black Coal, Thin Ice. Like that film, The Wild Goose Lake is a moody Chinese noir, full of morose characters trapped in a world of violence they cannot understand. It’s also significantly more interesting to look at than the majority of Chinese noirs that have afflicted the festival circuit in the wake of Black Coal‘s triumph. Sure, it has more than its share of torrential downpours and black nights of the soul, but Diao mixes the morose setting with yellows, greens, and reds (along with some delightfully sickly neon pinks) more reminiscent of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and the first third of Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White than the dull grayness of movies like The Looming Storm or Savage or Lush Reeds. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his characters, who are nowhere near as vibrant as the film’s images.

Hu Ge, who had a small role in Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter, stars as an ex-con and gangster who finds himself the target of a manhunt after he accidentally shoots a cop. The setup to this is extremely promising, with Diao melding the highbrow style of Bi and Jia with a classic Triad-type story, involving gang rivalries and a motorcycle-stealing contest that ends in a shocking bit of violence. But it quickly shifts into a different kind of film entirely, with Liao Fan as the cop in charge of hunting him down and Gwei Lun-mei as the prostitute with a heart of gold who tries to help him escape (both Gwei and Liao starred as well in Black Coal).

Liao and the cops come off much better, as the blankness of their personalities matches the just-the-facts proceduralism of their pursuit, Liao himself bringing a necessary weight and professional authority to the role. But Gwei and Hu are blank slates, almost entirely affectless, with nary a hint of personality to mitigate their mopey sadness. Gwei is usually an actress of considerable charm, but there’s nary a hint here of the performer who stole scenes left and right in Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate a decade ago. Instead she walks determinedly, if directionlessly, around the frame, face pinched in a perpetual scowl, while Hu (hobbled as his character is by multiple gunshot wounds) merely looks depressed. The motivations and actions mostly make sense, but it’s hard to care anything about them when they aren’t the least bit interesting. Compare them to the wit and will Zhao Tao showed in Ash, or Liao Fan’s weaselly over-confidence in that same film, or the mystery and passion of Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang in Long Day’s Journey, and you’ll see what Wild Goose Lake is missing most.

But for all that, at moments the film is wonderful. There are at least three expert showdowns, built slowly and without dialogue, actors carefully arranging themselves in a well-defined space, communicating only with looks (or just as much: by not looking at all). Diao heightens one by having one group wearing shoes that have neon lights around their soles, such that our hero (such as he is) is seemingly hunted by circles of eerie pale green light, stark against the blackness of night. Another is set in a dilapidated concrete apartment complex, reminiscent of so many such structures in Hong Kong films, with their tangled hallways and noisy neighbors. In scenes like this, The Wild Goose Lake approaches the best of Johnnie To (the showdowns are nothing if not a nod to The Mission). If only the rest of the movie were so free.

VIFF 2019 Preview

We here at Seattle Screen Scene are very much looking forward to once again covering the Vancouver International Film Festival this year. It’s shaping up to be a pretty strong festival, with a number of titles we can’t wait to catch. We’ve already seen a few of the movies playing this year, though, as we covered them at festivals earlier this year. Here is a compendium of links to our previously published reviews of VIFF films that played at the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Asian Film Festival.


Blood Quantum (Jeff Barnaby) – Evan in the Georgia Straight: “TIFF kicked off for me with the First Nations zombie movie Blood Quantum, but the moment that I walked out of the theater, I ejected it from my consciousness like a spent shotgun cartridge (though one dumbfounding line—delivered with perfect seriousness—will rent a room in my memory palace for eternity: “They look at me like my vagina is Pandora’s box!”)”

Hard-Core (Nobuhiro Yamashita) – The latest from the director of Linda Linda Linda, one of the great films of the century thus far, was a disappointment for Sean, who wrote at the Notebook that, “Hard-Core is simply lost in itself, its collection of losers as charmless and uninteresting as the film’s forced whimsicality.”

A Hidden Life – (Terrence Malick) – Lawrence at InReview Online notes that Malick’s latest is a “vision of breathtaking natural expanses and solid manmade enclosures [which] remains every bit as formally radical as any of his films this decade.” While Evan is very much looking forward to seeing it again, as he wrote for the Georgia Straight that while he was initially disappointed, he “sat down for the next film, the lights dimmed, and then, suddenly, they came back up. How long had I been here? Sometimes, at a festival, a movie gets sacrificed on the pyre when the film that precedes it sparks something in the soul. Turns out I spent two hours replaying A Hidden Life in my head—everything else passed by in a blur. Sorry Beanpole [also playing VIFF], Terrence Malick set my mind on fire.”

It Must Be Heaven(Elia Suleiman) – Evan was not a fan of Suleiman’s latest, noting at InReview Online that, “Suleiman possesses maybe two or three visual ideas, though he strongly prefers one: sometimes things over here look like things over there. Because warmed-over humanism is his chosen mode, his facile symmetries are meant to reinforce — as the press notes say — the “unexpected parallels” that he discovers while travelling the globe. They’re also meant to be funny. That they fail as comedy is perhaps forgivable. That they turn disparate places and people into easily readable mirror images, which provide us the comfort of the familiar only because they reflect back a portrait of ourselves, is more worthy of condemnation.”

Krabi, 2562 – (Anocha Suwichakornpong & Ben Rivers) – At Reverse Shot, Lawrence writes that Suwichakornpong & Rivers’s collaboration “present[s] the viewer with sundry moving parts buttressed by fulsome textural detail and all manner of disorienting edits. If the pieces don’t quite fit together by the end, linked somewhat arbitrarily by the film’s temporal flattening—the entirety of the Holocene is folded into the present, 2562 being the current year of the Thai Buddhist calendar—that irresolvability is at least part of the point”

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach) – At InReview Online, Lawrence sees the risk-averse Baumbach attempting a bit more formal experimentation, such that his new movie “might eventually come to feel like a transitional work within his filmography.” As an example: “Baumbach sets up the formal template of the film, which introduces exaggerated, even caricatured types, then offers sundry details to modulate or even overturn the typification — which is also to say the opposite of what goes on during divorce proceedings, where small slippages are turned into deadly character flaws.”

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho) – In the Georgia Straight, Evan writes that Bong’s “images possess the graphic panache and pith of a comic book panel, and in Parasite, he tosses them off with characteristic ease. But as Bong bulks up his visual prowess with each new film, his characterological muscle only atrophies further. We’ve reached an unhealthy point: the internal and external stimuli that motivate his people are now second order concerns at best, always subordinate to the next punchy composition.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Cèline Sciamma) – Writing in the Georgia Straight, Evan was not a fan of Sciamma’s “finicky attention to candlelight and 18th century domestic fripperies [which] can’t hide the fact that Portrait of a Lady on Fire actually takes place in the present. And like any ready-made facsimile, the historical varnish is merely a concession to bourgeois tastes, a decorative contrivance, and therefore entirely dishonest.”

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid) – Evan in the Georgia Straight: “Lapid sees a neat correlation between his behaviorist approach to character—which abstracts human behavior into a series of violent tics—and the unstable psychogeography of Israeli selfhood. It’s unclear, however, that his style alone is sufficient to explicate his subject, at least to anyone living outside the confines of Nadav Lapid’s skittish mind—which is to say, the rest of us.”

The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin) – At InReview Online, Lawrence notes that while “Comparisons to fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin are inevitable, as both share an evident interest in lost and/or defunct film forms, artificial staging, and wild humor.” But, “the difference seems to be that the incongruous, borderline surreal turns of Maddin’s singularly fecund oeuvre feel touched by genuine madness, whereas Rankin’s film registers as merely mannered.”

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa) – Evan is conflicted on Costa’s latest, noting in the Georgia Straight that while “his images are as striking as any in contemporary cinema; they are incredible things to witness on a movie screen” but that “it also raises a question that both Costa and his fans are intent on avoiding. If Vitalina Varela truly belongs to the woman at its center, who lends the film her name and her life story, shouldn’t Costa bend his style around her?”

White Lie (Calvin Thomas & Yonah Lewis) – At InReview Online, Sean wrote that this Canadian indie from the team that brought Spice It Up to last year’s VIFF, about a woman pretending to have cancer is “like a straight version of a Seinfeld episode, with Katie (Kacey Rohl) as the Costanza at the center of it all, barely afloat atop a sea of deceit.”

White Snake (Amp Wong & Ji Zhao) – Reviewing this Chinese animated fantasy at the Mubi Notebook, Sean wrote that “aside from showing a bit too much skin and having a decided lack of songs, White Snake might as well be a Disney product.” But also, “it’s standard fairy tale romance stuff, but done with enough verve and belief that old clichés can be forgiven. It’s not Tsui Hark, but it might be a kids version of House of Flying Daggers.”

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan) – Evan was mixed on the latest from the director of Black Coal, Thin Ice, writing in the Georgia Straight that, “the eccentric mise-en-scène scrambles important plot information just as often as it transmits it with ingenuity. In other words, Diao is a less sophisticated storyteller than he is a stylist, and the narrative convolutions eventually throw a wrench in things. The film breaks down as it approaches its end, and the final beat, which should register with the emphatic force of a full stop, instead trails off like an ellipsis.”