The Wild Goose Lake is the kind of movie you’re probably going to know you’ll enjoy before we even see the first shot. Titles playing over black, a prominent, sleek score crashes in. Then, when we catch our first glimpse of Diao Yinan’s pulpy neo-noir, we get rain, a seedy waystation, and cigarettes.
The Wild Goose Lake knows what kind of movie it is, and makes a good job of being that kind of movie.
The Wild Goose Lake
Director: Diao Yinan
Released: May 18, 2019 (Cannes Film Festival); March 6, 2020 (limited)
Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a brooding, slender gangster of the Chinese underworld, fresh out of the slammer after a five year stay. As a reformed felon is wont to do, he’s soon back in the swing of things, staking our territory in the lucrative market of motorcycle theft.
A con’s gotta eat, right?
When a dispute ends in some real violence, one thing leads to another and, as it goes, Zenong’s killed a cop. Aided by Liu Aiai (Gewi Lun-mei), a “bathing beauty” (read: prostitute) with whom he shares a mutual acquaintance, The Wild Goose Lake chronicles the run from the law that results from his wayward gang violence.
I’ve already hit on some buzzwords used in the promotion of Diao’s film; “pulpy,” “neo-noir.” It’s a relief to me to report that these are indeed accurate representations of the thriller we get. Not merely content to flash some boisterous thugs and neon lights and call it a day, Goose Lake, structurally, feels right at home as a film noir. Opening in medias res, as they say, we catch up with Zenong well after the inciting events that set him on the bloody road to destruction. In fact, his conversation with Aiai, their rendezvous, is what comprises much of the early scenes. Only, we don’t get bogged down in expository conversation. Goose Lake, opposite some of its more sedate Chinese contemporaries, is kinetically edited, with a line from Zenong prompting a flashback to the bloody brawl that set him on this path, or Aiai’s explanation of a complication to his escape told visually. We’re thrust into the action and caught up while the characters themselves acclimate to the situation, which was frankly a major surprise and a welcome tempo, whereas a lot of films coming out of China, of this criminal underworld nature, can play things too quietly at times.
Make no mistake, there is a lingering tone to much of The Wild Goose Lake, with long takes and a general understatement about it. But I think genre fans can and will have their attention held by the construction of this familiar, hardboiled tale.
And “pulpy” is indeed another apt descriptor here. I mentioned “violence.” Well, an art film it may be, The Wild Goose Lake lets loose more often than not, Zenong a combatant to back up his cool, featuring no shortage of beatdowns and shootouts. The punctuations of violence in Goose Lake feel like a cross between the stylized brawling one might find in the South Korean The Man from Nowhere, yet with the restraint and frequency of something like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Hollywood breakout Drive. In essence, things never feel quite like the wild gunfights of John Woo, or a page out of Tarantino’s teahouse swordfest in Kill Bill, but The Wild Goose Lake should have enough carnage to satiate an action junkie with a tolerance for lulls in between.
If there’s an abstract comparison to be made, I feel obligated to mention how, at times, Diao’s editing and camerawork reminded me of Wes Anderson, of all people. There’s a neatness to the framing, for one, but the barrage of insert shots and close-ups that comprise moments of kinetic action (and, often, bloody violence) in the film felt like the most macabre scenes in Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s something that needs to be seen to be understood, perhaps, but the quirky sense of humor conveyed by much of the camerawork really struck me as unique, and was certainly unexpected.
But besides being a technical delight, The Wild Goose Lake is a generally great ride, with a strong sense of pace provided by the layered timelines and strong performances to boot. Recalling Drive, Hu Ge’s performance might recall the less-stellar aspects of Ryan Gosling’s Driver at times, being a bit of a blank slate and ultimately not giving us much to invest in, but Diao’s script might fool you into thinking Zhao Zenong is our anchor.
Well, he is, but the streetwise Aiai is really the one we root for. I did, anyway, sympathizing with her roping into a case of violent crime she’d best avoid. She’s battered for her involvement with the events of the film, which brings me to a point I feel need be addressed.
Late in the film’s run, there’s a scene of blatant rape that comes about and is dismissed in what feels like a minute’s time. The casualness with which this is depicted can be a jolt of horror, but it’s the way in which we’re not given any time to see a reaction from the victim feels problematic. The depiction of women in these sorts of no-nonsense crime films is often set in stone, with prostitutes and conniving gold-diggers the doom of many a leading man. To fault The Wild Goose Lake for playing into genre stereotypes feels worth noting, simply because the sexual violence present here feels so terribly arbitrary; we gain nothing from it, not even the horror of the event, perhaps, given its non-presence in the narrative. Simply a point that need be addressed.
It’s unfortunate that that third act moment left me with a bad taste, because as I’ve alluded, The Wild Goose Lake is a very, very good film. Its visuals are clear without playing into the flat digital aesthetic that can plague a lot of contemporary Chinese films (to be clear, I’m almost positive this was a film shot digitally, however, its ratio, color palette, and lighting all contribute to looking less like something shot on an iPhone, and more like a feature film). The aforementioned score, credited to Chinese electronic musician B6, is a winner, both atmospheric and tension-inducing. The story of crime going awry is familiar, and not necessarily groundbreaking, but strong genre fare with an eye for the country’s landscape. So often throughout Goose Lake we catch glimpses of the rural faces of small-towners looking on as the blood is spilled, impoverished Chinese crowding the workshops and alleys run by gangs and real estate thugs, and you wonder if Diao has a sense of the downtrodden in composing his road trip’s backdrop.
I can’t not recommend The Wild Goose Lake. It shocked me with its balance of languid scenes and smart pacing, with splashes of colorful violence to entertain the bloodthirsty (filmgoers!) among us. There’s perhaps too strong an adherence to genre, with the gross scene of violence against a woman, but in the best case scenario this might be written off as an insensitive oversight. At worse, perhaps, the perpetuation of the old hardboiled tradition of misogyny. In any event, The Wild Goose Lake deserves to be seen and commended for its strengths, and shouldn’t be relegated to obscurity for a misstep or two. As an entry in the sort of crime scenarios that would make Bogart blush, The Wild Goose Lake excels at injecting a shot of life and style into a genre of film that goes back nearly a hundred years; from the tommy guns of Chicago to the… umbrellas of the Wuhan province? Just you wait and see what that means!