Review: The Wild Goose Lake

Okay bitch, and…?

If you’re looking for an overly-convoluted, neon-for-the-sake-of-neon Chinese neo-noir, you’d be better off probing through Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018). As far as sporadic bursts of gleeful, slapstick violence go, Takashi Miike has literally made a hundred films (including the well-received First Love [2019], also playing at MIFF). For tightly-staged action set-pieces barely keeping afloat a woefully underdeveloped, underwritten melodramatic middle, Brian De Palma’s Domino (2019) is coming to Blu-ray later this year. This is all to say that Diao Yi’nan’s latest film, The Wild Goose Lake, is kind of pointless. Beyond the glaring omission that is the film’s lack of thematic substance, there is little to be found in the hyper-lit streets of this neon-noir.

In true genre fashion, gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is framed for the murder of a rival gang leader and is forced to take shelter from the encroaching police force within the labyrinthine, eponymous Wild Goose Lake, occasionally taking orders from Liu Aiai (Lun-Mei Kwei), a sex worker-turned-middleman who’s been tasked with liaising between Zhou and his criminal counterparts. Following a convincing first half-hour, full of plenty of goofy fighting and thieving all drenched and glistening in an incessant downpour, Diao jumps ship on a tight-knit exploration of a criminal underbelly that’s teased in the film’s opening. His non-linear structure initially rewards some spectacular sequences ― one which involves a gritty Fight Club-esque basement where gangsters are taught how to strip motorcycles; another becomes the “Olympic Games of thieving,” and condenses the plot of Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) to just over a minute. But the film shows its cards too early, and once the flashbacks become little more than distant memories, there’s little by way of tension to stitch together the remaining pieces.

There’s a lot of time spent waiting in The Wild Goose Lake: for secrets to drop, for twists to inevitably fold, for our characters to find some semblance of meaning in their lives of crime. It initially seems like such waiting might bear thematic weight, might emblazon some of Dong Jinsong’s (the man behind Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s infamous long take) restrained cinematography. But we never really arrive anywhere. Zhou is left to brood in undefined locations in the greater Wild Goose Lake area as the action revolves around him, and never to him, and we begin to realise just how hollow a tale this is. What remains is a pretty shell, sans pearl.

One might expect complex characterisation in the face of Diao’s understated plot, but his characters barely register, and his actors hardly seem interested in actualising any kind of interiority beyond hard-boiled posturing. Maybe it’s the inevitably of Zhou’s by-the-numbers storyline that Hu Ge’s detached gaze feeds into, or maybe he simply wishes he was in another movie. There’s temporary glee, however, to be found in Diao’s portrayal of China’s police force ― bumbling, buffoonish, rendered as cartoon characters en masse. But it’s a minor flourish on a major blemish: the protagonists’ absence of agency hardly gives way to empathy. Instead, we’re strapped into a humdrum narrative and forced to recount moments pinched from better genre films, while hopelessly decrypting gestures towards bigger concepts. There’s little interrogation of crime, of love, of whatever other ‘ideas’ this film thinks it has going for it. The characters just flab around and occasionally shoot each other under pretty street lights ― which would be fine if it didn’t feel so painfully uninspired. Towards the end of the film, Diao Yi’nan breaks from tone and strains to get a rise out of the audience through a gratuitous rape scene which arrives without warning or purpose. It’s a moment of sadism that feels nothing but exploitative, another misguided effort in adding a sense of “““depth””” to an already sinking ship. 

The banality of The Wild Goose Lake and Long Day’s Journey’s narratives ― their convolutedness in defiance of simple plots ― feels at odds with Dong Jinsong’s ability to shoot the hell out of these luminous midnights. In lieu of what little emotional gratification can be extracted from the two films, Dong’s unobtrusive camera is moody, broody, and totally expressive in the looming face of boredom. There’s a glossy texture to be found in the way he shoots shadows and lights urban Chinese streets with an evocative palette of primary colours. It’s just a shame that such imagery merely alludes to a depth that’s never realised; a smothering sense of warmth disguising a worthless, ice cold narrative. 

The Wild Goose Lake will be playing on 13 and 19 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Visit the MIFF site for more info.

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Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University writing a little something something about post-cinema and the desktop horror film. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris

Samuel Harris

Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University and has written for Cool Accidents and Catalyst Magazine. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.