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“The Wild Goose Lake” is a winding neo-noir reeling with desperation

Yiao Dinan’s latest film is screening for seven days on Film Movement’s “virtual cinema,” starting April 6, and part of the proceeds go toward the Wisconsin Film Festival. Info

While Yiao Dinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is set in Wuhan, China, the film thankfully has little else to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, except that it was scheduled to screen at the now-canceled 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival and is now available for a brief streaming run benefiting the fest. What it does offer is motorcycle chases, listless criminality, artfully staged violence, and people gathering in the background in groups of more than fifty. It’s really centered on one desperate man on the run, and a woman who tries to help him while looking out for her own shifting interests.

The plot is pure neo-noir fatalism, mining a similar territory as the director’s previous feature, Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014). Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a mid-level gangster, who is instantly reduced to the bounty on his head when he accidentally kills a police officer while chasing down a rival gang member. From then on, he squirms, dodges, runs away, and fights the fate that’s destined to meet him, becoming the wild goose of the title who’s being chased (the literal translation of the original Mandarin title is “Meeting At South Train Station,” which describes the opening scene of the film). That initial meeting starts us on the winding corridor of the film’s plot, whose exit point becomes inevitable but offers understated genre thrills as it makes its way there.

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Accompanying Zhou in his journey is Aiai Liu (Kwei Lun-Mei, sporting a haircut reminiscent of Faye Wong in Chungking Express), who is resigned to her role in reaping the rewards of Zhou’s misfortune, as well as adjusting her motives when they’re exposed. Economic desperation tinges the actions of almost every character shown on screen. Only the police, led by Captain Liu (Fan Liao), seem to be immune as they conduct their own manhunt. Their cars are the only ones shown in the film, actually, while the less powerful protagonists exclusively ride motorcycles, whose theft is also the backbone of the criminal enterprise that allows them to eke out a living. Characters Zhou meets along the way further try to devise their own ways of obtaining money before getting caught in the wake of the institutional forces looking to crush him. Even a poorly planned attack on a man like Zhou with few options seems like an acceptable risk for a better life.

The Wild Goose Lake’s long, quiet sequences make the violent eruptions carry more emotional weight. Yiao Dinan doesn’t relish or downplay the violence, though, preferring to show it suddenly in a wide shot or artfully obscuring the more gruesome aspects in a way that calls to mind the recent work of fellow Chinese director Jia Zhangke (Ash Is Purest White, a highlight of last year’s Wisconsin Film Fest). Characters are constantly shrouded in darkness or yellow fluorescent light, occasionally highlighted by neon pink, visually reminiscent of Black Coal, Thin Ice or perhaps even films by Taiwanese New Wave directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Tsai Ming-Liang. The expertly staged visuals at the forefront of The Wild Goose Lake also honor the genre tradition of everything from Night And The City (1950) to Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) in working in a little sociopolitical commentary into the proceedings.

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