VIFF 2019 Review: The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会)
I was volunteering when they were showing The Wild Goose Lake. I found it intriguing to see a crime drama coming from China.
Zhao Zenong is part of a crime ring in a district of Wuhan. One night, he goes to a dingy amphitheater in the basement of a hotel. There the men are talking about the latest techniques in motorcycle theft. One man tries to direct men to certain areas of the district to conduct their crime. Two men squabble over a lucrative area and then an all-out fight ensues. The fight is brutal and bloody with no one dying. However as some of the men go riding off in their motorcycles chasing each other down, one is beheaded by a rail at a fast speed. Meanwhile a policeman who arrives is accidentally shot by Zhao in a tourist garden.
In the city, a young woman named Liu Aiai works as a prostitute. She catches Zhao’s eye. Zhao propositions her and even gives her one of his cigarettes. Turns out Liu is a ‘bathing beauty’ who’s pimp is a mob boss named Huahua. Huahua tells Liu to deliver a message to Zhao’s wife. He has placed a hefty dead-or-alive price on Zhao because the decapitated man in one of Hua’s men. Also after the shooting of the cop, the police now have a dead-or-alive reward of 300,000 Yuan for the capture of Zhao and is made public on television. Captain Liu alert a team of police dressed for undercover work that he may be in the Wild Goose Lake area: an area known for its lawlessness.
Sometime later, Aiai is at a night market participating in line dancing with glow shoes. Just as she’s dancing to ‘Rasputin,’ she notices Zhao’s wife. She meets her to tell the news. Then right in the middle of dancing, another shootout occurs through a raid of the bikers for Zhao. Zhao escapes but the bikers shoot one man.
Zhao knows all the details. He knows it when he sees all the surveillance cameras and what’s up. Men inside the crime ring want to claim the reward, with Zhao dead. One night, he meets with Aiai by the Lake. Zhao tells her that if she turns him in, the reward money goes to his wife. Despite this, Aiai wants the reward to start a better life. Zhao has been in hiding since he’s been aware he’s a wanted man by more than one source. He does not his wife or young son to be a victim of this mess. However his own mob boss doesn’t like Zhao hiding himself. His boss still needs him to do things. The police confront Zhao’s wife and hope to use her to get Zhao in. Hua wants to use Zhao’s wife as bait for his own reward, but she breaks down over all this. A heist by the police turns up nothing. Zhao is shot, but is able to remove the bullet and bandage himself up.
One day, Zhao meets with Aiai at the lake in a boat. They share what could be one last cigarette. They caress and Zhao confesses everything to her. That night one of Hua’s men grabs Aiai and rapes her. The man is then shot by Zhao. But right in Wuhan’s market area, the police are on the chase for him. Zhao knows he has to make a run for it. He tries to make a run for the Lake, but is shot and killed. The police arrive led by Captain Liu and the news media comes as well. In the aftermath, Aiai and Zhao’s widow are seen together, and smiling.
There have been crime stories before. Most of them have been the common cat-and-mouse story that we see again in this film. Zhao has a ransom on his head and almost everybody surrounding him from law authorities to rivals to people even of his own crime syndicate want the big-money reward. It’s not just about a big crime boss trying to avoid being killed. It’s also how through Aiai we see another side of him. The outside sees a heartless criminal who’s hard to catch and hard to kill. When he’s with Liu, we see a man with feelings of love and sensitivity. A man who does have frailty and knows that he’s not that invincible. A man who shared with her more than just cigarettes. A man who wants to keep his wife and child out of his doings. Also unlike most of the other men in the crime world, he knew how to treat a lady right. Very rarely do we see a film that shows a sensitive side to a crime boss. The film does have the ability to be labeled a romance as it can be labeled a crime thriller.
The film is not just about the boss Zhao. It’s also about Aiai Liu: the woman in between. Aiai Liu is the woman who has Zhao’s heart. Zhao may be married to another woman, but it’s Aiai who Zhao drops his feelings of egotistical invincibility and shows he has a heart. However Aiai knows being involved with Zhao will make her a target. She knows men will want to target her and even violate her. She appears to know of the risk and is willing to make that risk. The smile between her and Zhao’s wife at the end does make one wonder. Are they smiling because they’re finally free? Or are they smiling in remembrance of Zhao?
The film succeeds not only as a drama, but also from its many cinema angles. The bike chases add to the excitement. The times between Zhao and Aiai add a calmness to the film at the right time and done in top notch film noir style. The addition of many of the shootings happening near a tourist section of the Lake and with surrounding animals add to the storytelling. The use of the Lake being where Zhao shows his frailty and fearfulness around Aiai also adds. The use of lights and colors in various shots, the sights of the worn buildings of the market town, and images of trains passing which has been done numerous times in crime stories also add to the film and its quality. It’s almost as if film noir has a Chinese quality added to it.
This is an accomplishment for writer/director Diao Yinan. He’s had two decades of renowned success with Black Coal, Thin Ice winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Here he takes on a crime story and does it with remarkable style. The story may be confusing and overdrawn in some areas, like Aiai’s rape, but he presents it in excellent fashion. Diao may have a lot of common elements of film noir in the past in this film, but it’s adding these elements to this film that shows a Chinese filmmaker can create film noir and make it look like his own.
One thing that’s rare in action films is deep acting, there was a lot here. Ge Hu was excellent as Zhao Zenong. He did a great job in making him go from this fearless invincible criminal a troubled man haunted by his impending death whenever he’s around Aiai. Lun-Wei Kwei was also very good as the woman caught in the middle who has feelings for Zhao, but also knows she has her own job to do. Also kudos to the cinematography of Dong Jingsong and the art direction of Qiang Liu.
This film was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was also a nominee for a major prize at the San Sebastian Film fest. There have been times during the film or even after the film I wondered how would a story about organized crime in China make it to the big screen? Would the Chinese government be concerned and want the film to be censored? This film is planned for release in China on December 6th of this year.
The Wild Goose Lake is a crime drama of the pursuit of chasing down a big crime boss for the sake of a reward. However the story is a lot more as it’s about the woman he loves and her feelings towards him, and living in the same criminal world he lives in.