Escaping and Searching in “The Wild Goose Lake”

When I was listing the films to watch for Philadelphia Film Festival in late October, I couldn’t help noticing a critically acclaimed Chinese film that was proudly selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. “The Wild Goose Lake” (2019), written and directed by award-winning director Diao Yinan, puts focus on suburb Wuhan (a city in Southern China) where an accidental crime and unexpected violence take place. The film stars the famous TV actor Hu Ge, who is known for playing graceful and gorgeous characters in Chinese historical dramas. Yet this time, he overturned his public impression by portraying a criminal with a shabby outfit who keeps escaping from the law. The drastic change in his image — from suave gentleman to scruffy gangster — is one of the major reasons I went to watch “The Wild Goose Lake”, and also one of the contributing elements that attracts many young Chinese audiences.

“The Wild Goose Lake” unfolds its story by establishing the context of suburban Wuhan gangsters. They normally gather in the meeting room of a bleak hotel, discussing ways to steal motorbikes, which is a significant source of their income. Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), the ex-criminal who just got out of prison, becomes the center of attention in the gathering: the hierarchy of authority shifts quickly, and thus the return of Zhou —the former leader — stirs up the tension. Gangsters decide to add spice to the tension by proposing a game of theft, where the one who can steal the most motorbikes wins ultimate respect. Yet in the process of playing this game, Zhou and his followers unfortunately step into the trap that was set up by their enemies, and Zhou accidentally kills a cop. This unintentional murder later becomes the major force that pushes the story forward. When the cops start to chase after Zhou and put out a ¥300,000 ($42,000) bounty on his head, Zhou is on his plan to find his wife and convince her to call the police and eventually get the reward. In his endless attempt of escaping and searching, Zhou meets a “bathing beauty” (another way of refering to sex workers), Liu Aiai (Gwei Lunmei), whose life somehow starts to be intertwined with his. 

The entire film is tinted with dim neon colors and the brutal red of gore. When I constantly see the mysterious woman who serves for sexual motivation, the extremely humid Southern town, and the cruel, gruesome way of murder, I naturally relate this film with the genre of film noir, and maybe a slight hint of Quentin Tarantino (who is rumored to have bursted into laughter to the gory scenes during the Cannes premiere of this film). “The Wild Goose Lake” did an excellent job in creating and establishing an atmosphere of disturbing violence by the interesting use of cinematography and the almost ceaseless background sound. When Zhou first gets into a fight with the gangsters in the hotel meeting room, instead of seeing the full exposure of beating and slapping, we are shown a close-up sequence of montage — objects like lips, fists, an apple, and a gun that are key elements of the fight replace one another rapidly so that we would perceive a general idea of the violent scenes. Moreover, the short and crisp sound of these objects are amplified and inserted in the chaotic commotion to strengthen the tension. Although later in the film all the brutality is relentlessly revealed through exposing bodies and gore, this particular sequence provides a fresh perspective of approaching violence by using interesting cutting technique. 

Another unforgettable scene is when Zhou runs away from police the last time. I can feel the obvious helplessness in Zhou as well as the mental intensity he is experiencing by seeing the way the camera depicts his escape. In this scene, we hear the ceaseless rain drops, the gunshot of the police, and the agitated steps of Zhou running away. The camera, without zooming out to the entire building where Zhou and the police run about, or focusing on Zhou’s body with a medium shot, instead chooses to put the focus on the wall, where Zhou’s shadow is cast and gradually gets  bigger. Physically, Zhou is farther away from the wall since he is escaping, yet mentally, the disturbingly increasing size of his shadow conveys his unease and unsettlement. In general, the visual and aural effects of “The Wild Goose Lake” successfully envelop the audience with an upsetting, tense atmosphere.

When I pondered the film after watching, another key feature that I noticed is the cultural expression. Every character in the film speaks Wuhan dialect, which is so difficult to comprehend that even I, a native Mandarin speaker, had to read the subtitles to keep up with the story. Yet Diao Yinan is obviously not from the Wuhan area, and according to him in an interview, he selected Wuhan as the major shooting location because they needed to find a city with big lakes in the suburbs, and Wuhan is clearly a satisfactory choice. Therefore, Diao does not have an emotional attachment to the place. Based off of that reason, when I thought about the intention of particularizing the linguistic aspect, I couldn’t help but doubt that Diao is pressing this element into audience’s minds so that they will constantly be reminded of the cultural context.  Besides the dialect, I don’t think I can see anything else apparent of Wuhan cultural references. 

Perhaps that comes to the question I continuously asked myself afterwards — can the film be set in Wuhan exclusively or anywhere in China, despite the linguistic element? We obviously are shown the margins of society, the suburban town with constant rain, and the abandoned buildings with exposed interiors, yet aren’t these ingredients common in most developing suburbs in Chinese social context? Instead of making them specially Wuhan, Diao Yinan added more seemingly far-fetched cultural symbols into the film. The story is said to be set in 2012, yet both the “bathing beauties” and the “woman in the bottle (瓶中女)” (which is shown as if a woman’s head grew out of a small bottle. The woman will sing songs if people throw money in), which are portrayed as unique Wuhan localisms, are hardly seen anywhere in the past two decades. By incorporating these anachronistic cultural symbols, Diao might want to convey the eeriness of the setting, but to me they seem slightly out of place. If his intention is to emphasize on the Wuhan localism, then convincing the audience of the Wuhan cultural references is perhaps a better choice. 

Nevertheless, “The Wild Goose Lake” is still an interesting film to watch, since the combination of Chinese contemporary cinema and film noir is honestly very rare. On that note, seeing the attempt of an award-winning director to bravely depict violence and sexual motivation indeed provides me with fresh eyes and a pleasant viewing experience.

Featured image courtesy of wikipedia.org

Carrie Jiang

Carrie Jiang '21 is a film studies major and possibly Asian studies minor. She loves films, photography, and food.

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