' ' Cinema Romantico: The Wild Goose Lake

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The Wild Goose Lake

Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake” is a neo-noir drenched not in monochrome but gaudy neon, vibrant colors that do not simply offset the film’s considerable grisly violence but render them darkly humorous. When a dude gets impaled with an umbrella, it is so artfully choreographed that rather than cover my eyes or gasp, I laughed; it’s like a guy getting impaled by a parapluie in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” I do not mean this to sound insensitive. This tone is evocative of Yinan’s impressive gallows humor, a shrewd bout of world-building portraying a Wuhan society thoroughly corrupt and hopeless, like the scene of a disembodied head in some strange carnival getting chewed out by the boss man for performing when no ticket-buyers are present, portraying even an ostensibly magical floating cranium as the demoralized proletariat. Time is money, after all, an idiom “The Wild Goose Lake” brutally turns on its head. 

As “The Wild Goose Lake” begins, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), a motorbike-pilfering gangster, is at a train station, smoking while rain patters the cement, meeting a prostitute, Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), in lieu of his wife. It’s not what you think. Dovetailing flashbacks, demonstrating how each character wound up here, Zhou having inadvertently killed a cop, essentially sentencing him to death, with Liu becoming his unlikely ally in pulling off a scheme to collect the considerable bounty on his head and deliver it to his wife. That’s the movie’s most mournful, ingenious twist, rewiring “Double Indemnity” so that rather than killing for insurance money, he’s the one who needs to be killed, taking your fatalism straight rather than on the rocks. 

The ensuing knotty narrative, both as it flashes back and then moves relentlessly forward, belies the simplicity of that set-up, as Yinan proves less interested in the procedural details than immersing his characters in a world clearly meant to skewer a contemporary Chinese society. In one scene the police hot on Zhou’s trail literally pose with a corpse in the aftermath of a shootout, a la “The Naked Gun 2 1/2”, glimmering arthouse noir recast as a laugh-out-loud spoof. A late scene inside a factory, meanwhile, where workers have summoned to learn who will be randomly fired, at first seems out of place, underlined in how the camera almost happens upon it by accident, until you realize it rhymes with a much earlier sequence where rival gangs argue over territory, no occupation on the up and up, the whole system curdled.

The eponymous lake, in fact, is not a scenic getaway so much as a place where prurient dudes seek companionship, like Liu, a miserable lot in life brought home in a romantic rowboat ride that ends with her retching over the side for reasons I’ll let you discover on your own. This moment is nothing if not anti-romantic, befitting its characters, both of whom engender sympathy from the harsh circumstances if never transforming into true characters. Granted, that is part of Yinan’s point, how this oppressive society sands away your soul. But in portraying how society views these people as worthless, Yinan never quite renders them worthy nonetheless, inadvertently turning Zhou’s conclusion into a cruel punchline rather than a wickedly clever joke about living just to die.

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