Selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival — and recently screened at the 2020 San Francisco Indie Film Festival — Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake begins in the middle: our protagonists meeting for the first time in a bus station. They are utterly calm and cool, in spite of the pouring rain and surrounding darkness that suggests an impending disaster. The man wonders where his wife is; the woman he just met says she’ll be his wife.
Diao reveals his story in small pieces like this, with an anxious undertone working to tie it all together and to keep the viewer engaged. After accidentally shooting a police officer during an altercation with a rival mob, motorcycle thief Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is the subject of a widespread manhunt. Sensing that his fate is sealed, Zhou asks his allies to find his estranged wife so that she can turn him in and collect the reward money. A sex worker, Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), the mystery woman who is often seen at a local beach, is roped into this plot by her boss to help find Zhou’s wife and connect them.
For Zhou and Liu, it becomes increasingly difficult to maneuver the small towns and beaches since the police are everywhere. Some of Goose Lake‘s most nerve-wracking scenes involve Liu’s attempts to navigate markets and restaurants — eyes darting towards every corner, trying to guess who is a member of the mob and who is an undercover officer. The camera remains close to her back as she weaves through narrow alleys, empty shores, and labyrinth-like stalls with harried grace. Dong Jingsong’s camerawork shines during these scenes; the setting emphasizes a sense of claustrophobia, building up tension as the camera smoothly follows her in and out of darkness to spaces lit by pink neon restaurant signs or other motel fluorescents.
Tonally well-grounded for the most part, Diao approaches his characters often with a slightly detached lens. There are occasional upward swings in moods, however, moments where the film jumps into a whole new genre during its more violent fight scenes. Such action feels quick and sometimes cartoonish, thrillingly disorientating in just how sudden their arrival feels. For the most part, though, Diao’s focus is split between the two protagonists, with the flashbacks at first stemming from Zhou’s perspective and later switching to Liu’s. There’s an allure to Zhou, much like the scenes of the motorcycle thieves congregating, but Diao keeps him at a surprising distance. What begins as a compelling reason to keep watching him slowly starts to feel like a detriment to the movie once we realize that we may never truly pinpoint his personality or intriguing backstory.
Despite rarely leans heavily into the emotions of any of its characters, we certainly spend the most time with Liu. It’s emphasized that she isn’t a trained spy nor a classic femme fatale — she loses her composure easily, quivering and breaking down in silence as she weaves through the building to avoid capture. Gwei’s acting is a huge anchor for the film, which — along with its close-knit chase scenes and consistently foreboding tone — make The Wild Goose Lake a compelling entry in the neo-noir genre.