Diao Yi'nan's The Wild Goose Lake is being shown exclusively on MUBI from February 28 - March 28, 2020 in the United Kingdom in the series The New Auteurs.
Early into Diao Yi’nan’s The Wild Goose Lake, Fan Liao’s Captain Liu stands before a group of plainclothes cops and a half-charted map. Liu and fellow officers are hunting down a gangster by the name of Zhou (Ge Hu), and the map shows his last known whereabouts: a town in southern China nestled along the Wild Goose Lake. Many of the cops aren’t locals, so the briefing doubles as a warning against the thug and one against the place itself. “Be well aware of the complexity of the lake area,” Liu says of the alien turf: “it’s a lawless place that no-one really controls.”
In the sinisterly seductive world of Diao’s fourth feature, the scene might slip past you without much fanfare. The anonymous meeting room isn’t a patch on the rain-slicked alleyways and neon-drenched rooms where Zhou and cops hide and fight, the aura not as surreal as the film’s most oneiric moments, and the exchange certainly not as memorable as some of the show-stopping set pieces disseminated all along Zhou’s flight. But it’s the first time writer-director Diao lays bare a tension upon which The Wild Goose Lake stands, and arguably, one he’s been articulating since his 2003 feature debut Uniform.
That film chronicled the struggles of a cash-strapped tailor who relies on a cop uniform to drum up money for his family and restore some dignity along the way. Diao’s sophomore, Night Train (2007), followed a court bailiff’s sexual cat-and-mouse with the husband of one of her detainees. And even as it signaled a diversion from the social realism of its two predecessors and a deep plunge into film noir, Diao’s 2014 Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice also sought to blur its cops vs. criminals scaffolding, with Fan Liao’s alcoholic ex-cop falling for a femme fatale (Lun-Mei Kwei) who may or may not be implicated in the murders he’s investigating.
Like the doomed protagonists that came before him, Zhou too seems to inhabit a morally ambivalent terrain, sauntering through the film like a wounded martyr. After all, the police are after him for what Diao wants us to believe was essentially a mistake. Caught in a gang brawl and fleeing for his life, Zhou accidentally shoots and kills a cop, and upon his return to the Wild Goose Lake in search of his estranged wife, he resolves she should be the one to turn him in and pocket the 300,000 Yuan bounty that hangs over his head.
“There is dignity and nobility in the most despised people” Diao told Film Comment upon the film’s Cannes premiere: “the kind of nobility which is beyond mainstream morality.” It was these words that jolted me back to Captain Liu’s briefing, and made that scene feel all the more significant. For Diao’s cinema exists in open contradiction with the cop’s belittling reading of that second-tier world and its people. Populated by doomed heroes and heroines fighting against and outside the law, it invites us to grant them understanding, to see the humanity in the despised and downtrodden. Except The Wild Goose Lake prompts us to extend empathy to a larger whole of which its protagonists are just parts.
To be watching Zhou’s flight from justice is to witness a manhunt swell into a clash between two irreconcilable cosmogonies. Liu and the powers-that-be he embodies approach the periphery as a sub-par colony where the rules of the outside world don’t apply. Populating the shores of the Wild Goose Lake “you’ll find all kinds of people, professions, and crimes,” he reminds his subalterns, but there’s a delightful sense of irony in the way Diao lets the words echo in voiceover, while the camera (handled by Diao’s regular cinematographer Dong Jingsong ) offers glimpses of a tranquil, Desolation Row-like town, with people loitering around bars, street vendors selling counterfeited DVDs, drunkards sleeping on the sidewalks, and “bathing beauties” roaming the lake’s shores—call-girls eking out a meager living out of locals and tourists.
It’s a bathing beauty who welcomes Zhou back to the city. Kwei Lun-Mei retains some of her dark oomph from Black Coal, Thin Ice to play Liu, a prostitute who’s asked to step in as intermediary between Zhou and his wife, and eventually replaces her, as the bond between gangster and girl evolves into a tragically short-lived affair. That Diao should mention the Arabian Nights as a source of inspiration for the script should strike as nothing surprising. The Wild Goose Lake opens in a stormy night, with thug and girl meeting under a spectral staircase, and for a good half of its running time, the rendezvous serves as the epicenter around which the film’s myriad backstories unfold. The narrative is anfractuous, its sense of continuity attenuated in favor of flashbacks, and disorienting as the plot may sometimes feel, there’s something eerily sensual about the nocturnal world man and woman meander into.
This is the first feature Diao shoots in China’s south, and it’s a feast for the senses. Dong’s humid, oily palette is a far cry from the arctic industrial wasteland he’d captured in Black Coal, Thin Ice, the neons and streetlights here taking on a warmer glow as they beckon us into rooms bathed in ambers and ochres. And there are tactile, olfactive pleasures scattered all through the chase. You can almost smell the noodles slurped in 10-Yuan restaurants, can feel the sweat condensing on Zhou’s temples, the landing of punches, the flesh torn apart—even as Diao’s impeccable staging oftentimes elides the violence in favor of more associative close-ups.
Diao said the plot cribbed from the “Congress of Thieves,” an underworld convention the city of Wuhan hosted circa 2012, where local gang lords sought to split up the turf before police forces raided the meeting. But all the film’s gritty realism and real-life echoes jostle with a dreamlike underbelly, leaving it to hang in a nebulous region - far more surreal than anything Diao had previously treaded into. Interludes of near-magical beauty abound, like a chase through a zoo where gunshots ricochet over hyper-closeups of caged animals, or an outdoor dance party scored to the ’70s disco tune “Rasputin” that breaks into a showdown between thugs and LED-soled cops.
Sure, this remains a dangerous, mysterious milieu, and nowhere does Diao turn the lakeside town into a utopia. But there’s a sense of tragedy that lingers above the entire community, which accounts for the surprisingly moving aftertaste some of Zhou and Aiai’s peregrinations shimmer with. The fatalism embraced by the couple extends to the Wild Goose Lake as a whole. This is a dying world, where billboards of new skyscrapers and immense development projects portend an encroaching modernity that rings as desolating as the duo’s fate. And in a body of work where crime and capitalism have always featured as an indissoluble duo, that inevitable doom tying people and town together may well be The Wild Goose Lake’s beating heart.