First filmic effort from novelist Zhu Wen was certainly, as the BIFF program states, “pushing the boundaries of film form and challenging the conventional norms of cinema”, however I found it a little too boundary-pushing and unconventional for my tastes as I struggled to find things to like. Beijing prostitute Zhang Xiaomei arrives in sleepy, off-season holiday destination Beidaihe and books into a hotel room with the intention of killing herself. As it turns out, she’s not the first, and the death of her poetically despondent neighbour brings the police to her door. The investigating officer, familiar with the things that bring people to his town in the middle of winter, immediately sees through her evasiveness and takes it upon himself to be concerned for her continuing welfare. However, his altruism has a darker side and he becomes a kind of anti-hero in an almost literal sense, attempting to rescue a reluctant Zhang with a bizarre mixture of cruelty and understanding.
The at-times rough camera work, the raw, untreated audio and the sometimes clashing palette of colour used is an interesting contrast to the harsh, snowy, almost deserted landscape of the film, perhaps reflecting Zhang’s state of mind. There are present the themes of real versus fake, private versus public, where each character is both a stereotype and yet also possess unexpected and mostly unexplained complexity, and had the film stayed focused on these it might have made a much stronger film. But perhaps the whole point here is not identity so much as perspective. Zhang’s life seems bad enough to kill herself, but forced interaction with the Beidaihe cop brings her to the point where it is not necessarily her circumstances so much as the decisions that she has (or hasn’t) been making that define the quality of her life. It’s an interesting note to end on, but a shame that there wasn’t more investment in the journey to reach it.