Cannes 2019 review: The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Trying to summarize Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a bit of a fool’s errand, and perhaps a bit beside the point, but let’s try anyway. Motorcycle thief Zhou Zenong (Ge Hu) gets into a (bloody) spat with other members of his motorcycle thieving gang, and while on the run from them he accidentally shoots a cop (that’s what you get for driving your motorcycle during those dark, rainy nights). The police put a price on his head, which gives him the idea that he should find his wife to let her turn him in and reap the fat reward for herself and their child. So now he has both the cops and the gangsters on his heels, and so does his wife, because through her they can get to him (that is the idea, anyway). Cue lots of chase scenes on, you guessed it, motorcycles (I’m assuming Suzuki was a sponsor of this film).

In fact, a more apt title for this film would probably be The Wild Goose Chase, because in essence the film is nothing more than that: two hours of people chasing each other around during a seemingly endless night, through dark alleyways and along rain-soaked roads. Its slightly convoluted and confusing plot seems only a ploy for Diao to show off his (admittedly impressive) skills as a director. Shots are composed to the millimeter, with lighting and cinematography lending the film a deep neo-noirish feel. It is gorgeous to look at, and would probably entertain just as much with the sound off, although the ever-pattering rain would be missed then, and I guess that adds to the atmosphere. And atmosphere is all that this is about. A mood piece disguised as a gangster film, an exercise in style-over-substance. Theoretically there is nothing wrong with that, but at a runtime of two hours The Wild Goose Lake feels stretched thin, and not enough to justify its competition berth.

The film is certainly accessible, with its cops-and-robbers narrative just confusing enough to keep viewers guessing what is happening for the entire runtime, so commercial prospects are high enough for daring programmers willing to take a gamble on a Chinese gangster film. The Cannes label on the poster will surely help sell it. There is no denying Diao’s talent, but a better screenplay would have helped. Compared to The Wild Goose Lake, his most recent and well-praised film Black Coal, Thin Ice has a far denser narrative, but even that one was not very complicated. One can’t shake the feeling that if this had been made by a European or American director it would not have been here. Of course there is the problem with Chinese films unavailable to festivals at the moment for political reasons, which might mean this is the best thing Cannes could get, but a sidebar slot for Diao, who only stepped into the spotlight with his last film, would have been a better option.