By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - An overweight detective with a drinking problem and a fresh divorce stumbles through the snow to catch a killer armed with ice-skates, showing China has no need to envy the Nordics when it comes to crime in a cold climate.
A city lawyer rides through the desert on horseback with a satellite navigator to rescue a girl from a deadly smuggler. Not Arizona but China again, showing it may have something to teach Quentin Tarantino when it comes to spaghetti Westerns.
The thriller "Black Coal, Thin Ice" and the darkly funny "No Man's Land" are among three Chinese films competing for the top Golden Bear award at this year's Berlin film festival.
Berlin jury member Tony Leung, star of arthouse hits such as Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love" and Hong Kong thrillers like the triad movie "Infernal Affairs", said Western audiences would be seeing "more and more Chinese movies".
"I think Chinese cinema, the Chinese film industry is growing globally in the past 10 years, and I think people are getting interested in our Chinese culture," said Leung.
The juxtaposition of Western genres with Chinese culture is part of the allure of "Black Coal" and "No Man's Land", though the challenge of making movies there is also clear. Director Ning Hau said "No Man's Land" took four years to reach the screen partly because censors demanded so many changes.
Neither film is overtly political. "Black Coal" depicts life in northern China in bleak detail, like the 2003 film "Blind Shaft", which also mixed coal and murder and was banned from Chinese cinemas.
The local cops hunting a serial killer are sympathetic, if flawed, human beings, who even take a horse in from the cold when it starts to snow.
With body parts in coal trucks, an eye in a bowl of noodles and dismembered feet in skates, "Black Coal" pulls no punches. Snow crunches loudly, a shower drips annoyingly and the car of a Ferris wheel creaks when the hero and a suspect make love, all building an atmosphere which is as raw as the winter cold.
The dialogue is appropriately laconic, too.
"This is no way to get sober," a colleague tells Zhang Zili, who loses his detective badge after a shootout in a beauty parlor but keeps hunting doggedly for the killer.
"Who says I want to get sober?" replies Zhang, played by Liao Fan who said he drank and put on weight for the role.
THE DARK SIDE
"Black Coal" director Diao Yinan, who won awards for "Night Train" in 2007, said he ignored the advice "cold films don't sell". He wanted to portray the warmth of emotions beneath, and evil, to help us all "feel less alone with our dark side".
In "No Man's Land", fresh-faced lawyer Pan Xiao gets on the wrong side of falcon poachers, two truckers and nearly everyone else in the northwestern Chinese desert. A blend of "Mad Max" and Sergio Leone, complete with strumming guitars, it has some improbably deep dialogues amid the violence.
"People are capable of doing anything when they are in extreme danger. It's called animal instinct," says Pan, played by Xu Zheng, who reflected after the screening that layers of civilization were "peeled off" his character in the desert.
Director Diao said he watched a lot of Westerns as a child and nodded to the influence of Tarantino, but said he was much more heavily influenced by Chinese artists and the wish to tell "a Chinese story" about greed and its impact on society.
The third Chinese entry in the main competition in Berlin, "Blind Massage" by Lou Ye, depicts in intimate detail life at a massage clinic staffed by blind people.
Adapted from a novel by Bi Feiyu, it uses blind amateurs and professional actors like Guo Xiaodong, playing Dr Wang. He rejected the role at first because of the challenge of working with the blind, then lived among them to prepare for it.
"I ate together with them, lived with them and really felt how it is when you are closed out, how the world changes and how it treats you," he said.
(Additional reporting by Michael Roddy; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Gareth Jones)