Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Sean Gilman Featured Film Horizon Line

The Breaking Ice — Anthony Chen

January 18, 2024

Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s most impressive career achievement to-date might have come during the 2013 Golden Horse Awards, when his debut feature, Ilo Ilo, won the Best Picture prize, in the process beating out Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, Johnnie To’s Drug War, and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. Chen’s second film, Wet Season, is a pretty good, if a bit generically plotted, May-December romance story between a teacher and one of her students. The relationships are complex and nuanced, helped by a terrific lead performance from Yeo Yann Yann (lately seen on the Disney+ TV series American Born Chinese, alongside Michelle Yeoh and Daniel Wu). Chen’s latest feature — and his second this year, after an English language film that premiered at Sundance —  is Mainland Chinese production The Breaking Ice, which premiered at Cannes and is now playing as part of TIFF’s Centrepiece section.

Liu Haoran (star of the Detective Chinatown series) plays Haofeng, a lonely young man from Shanghai who finds himself in Yanji, a town on the frozen border between China and North Korea. Wandering around, Haofeng meets and befriends a tour guide, Nana, played by Zhou Dongyu (Soul Mate, This is Not What I Expected), and her friend, Xiao (Qu Chuxiao, from The Wandering Earth), who works in his aunt’s restaurant. The three youths roam around the town for a few days, drinking, dancing, seeing the sights, and trying to walk up to a remote mountain lake, all the while slowly revealing tiny bits of the backstory that led them to be sad twentysomethings.

Most of said backstory is left vague, which is fine because it doesn’t really matter anyway. Zhou’s Nana gets something close to a coherent narrative — her past involves something about being a figure skater and injuring her foot — but her two male counterparts really don’t. We know that Liu’s Haofeng and Qu’s Xiao are both melancholy, unfulfilled, but the film doesn’t probe too deeply, seemingly viewing this as a generation-specific ennui. Nana’s story, then, tends to seem petty in comparison to whatever it is that we imagine the near-but-not-quite-suicidal Haofeng is going through.

To Chen’s credit, one can easily imagine a lesser director playing up Nana’s quirkiness, framing things almost entirely from the male Haofeng’s perspective, and giving us a kind of Chinese Garden State (God forbid). Thankfully, Chen just lets his three actors wander around, finding small bits of business for them to do — eating noodles in a park at 4:00 AM, trying to steal books from a bookstore, having somewhat awkward sex — and the film is all the better for it. Many of the images Chen finds are quite lovely, if conventional: the snowy mountain, walls of lights, various clubs of probably just as disaffected youths enjoying the various singers on-stage, a maze built out of colored blocks of ice that might as well have a big sign with the world “Metaphor” posted on it in blinking lights. All in all, one could call The Breaking Ice a much less rigorous, and thus somewhat more mainstream-appealing, Millennium Mambo.

DIRECTOR: Anthony Chen;  CAST: Zhou Zongyu, Liu Haoran, Chuxiao Qu;  DISTRIBUTOR: Strand Releasing;  IN THEATERS: January 19;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.

Originally published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.