The Wild Goose Lake is a thrilling neon noir and incisive commentary on the degradation that comes with rapid economic boon.
There’s a particularly pleasing synesthetic joy to watching a movie that values style as much as substance; Drive’s shimmering neon palate immediately comes to mind, as does the languid magical realism of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In addition to aesthetics, these two films share certain narrative sensibilities with Chinese director Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake. In keeping with neo-noir tradition, Yinan’s plot is outwardly simple but convoluted with double-crossings and interchangeable henchmen. It opens at a rain-soaked train station with the elfin Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) informing the protagonist, battle-scarred crime boss Zhou Zenong (Chinese TV star Ge Hu), that she will be the stand-in for his wife. This enigmatic start cuts to a flashback of underworld crime bosses and their goons divvying up districts for grand larceny, their basement meeting place roiling with sweat and testosterone. It’s not long before Zenong finds himself on the run for accidentally shooting a cop; meanwhile, twin thugs with names like Cat’s Eye and Cat’s Ear prowl the periphery. The Wild Goose Lake is essentially a manhunt thriller (perhaps the transliterated title is meant to be a pun?), and its characters’ bleak circumstances are a stand-in for the social ills that got them there in the first place. American noir tradition is imbued with post-war fatalism, a cynical hangover from the Great Depression. Here, Yinan’s pessimism skews in the other direction: his focus is the degradation, seediness, and hard-won grit of a country whose fabulous economic success is built on the backs of third-bit criminals, beachfront prostitutes, and laughably corrupt policemen who have no problem posing for photos with a corpse.
That it all takes place in Wuhan, China, a city situated where the Yangtze and Han rivers merge, is telling: Wuhan has a population greater than New York City and land area five times the size of London, yet is considered “second-tier” by China’s unofficial ranking system. It lacks the cosmopolitan chic of Shanghai or the political might of Beijing, but has the resources to muster up a mass manhunt overnight. Its proximity to water has made it a historic transportation hub, but its perimeters are undeveloped and lack basic infrastructure. These contradictions, inherent in any rapidly industrialized nation but rendered especially surreal by Yinan’s eye for sly humor, inject The Wild Goose Lake with moments of thrilling, occasionally absurd action. In one vivid, playfully gruesome scene, a villain wielding a knife is defeated by the antihero’s translucent plastic parasol. Yinan’s wholly unexpected use of this object, which is utterly ubiquitous throughout China and Chinatowns the world over, is a succinct encapsulation of the movie at large: he confidently deploys familiar noir tropes alongside everyday hallmarks of contemporary Chinese culture. In another scene, a group of nighttime plaza dancers – another thoroughly unremarkable sight – is infiltrated by gangsters, and in the ensuing showdown, their light-up LED soles suddenly turn The Wild Goose Lake into an extended Tron outtake. It’s not all style, of course. Liu Aiai, a “bathing beauty” of the eponymous lake, aids Zenong for reasons that remain ambiguously altruistic up until the final shot. Working the waterfront, she endures a multitude of casual and heart-wrenching violations with the resignation of a veteran. During one long take, she walks in front of a construction tarp printed with a rendering of gleaming glass towers and lush plazas. For a moment, a second-tier city morphs into a first, and her prospects rise accordingly. Then, the tarp ripples in the wind and Wild Goose lake reappears behind her. As it turns out, nothing has changed.
Published as part of March 2020’s Before We Vanish.