Chinese director Diao Yinan’s 2019 neo-noir has everything: decapitation, prostitution, semen elegantly hawked into sparkling lake waters, a beautifully choreographed brawl in a grimy gangster gathering with torn prosthetic limbs and body parts practically fused to one another in vice grips; and, perhaps, one of the most hilarious and memorable chest skewerings put to film. Under its haze of magenta and mustard yellows, glimmering sweat glistening on bloodied bodies and a glowering anti-hero not without his familiarity, The Wild Goose Lake hosts a perverted sort of fairytale. A tale of lost love, of rags to riches, of an outlaw on the run, The Wild Goose Lake is sometimes captivating, sometimes aimless, often convoluted, but at least never unsure of itself.
The film opens in the most noir way possible: two of our protagonists meeting up under a seedy underpass, as torrential rains bluster behind them and the tragic events leading up to their encounter are recalled for us. Seasoned criminal Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is on the run in the aftermath of a motorcycle race gone wrong, leading to one of his gang members having his head thrown from his body like a punted football. In Zenong’s getaway from the crime scene, he unknowingly shoots two police officers believing them to be random passersby. There’s now a hefty price on Zenong’s head as he meets with a woman named Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei), a prostitute (or “bathing beauty” as they’re called, for hanging out around the titular Goose Lake) whose boss has gang affiliations and who has come with a message from Zenong’s estranged wife.
Zenong wants his reward money to go to his wife in the event that he gets killed or captured, but his journey towards evading such a fate is marred by backstabbing after double-cross, as he’s impeded by cops, his own gang boss, and a starry-eyed Liu Aiai looking to escape the dismal nature of her current life. These are just a few of the many threads that overcomplicate the film into an elaborate but tangled piece of neo-noir, as it becomes clear that the film’s intent for its audience is less about keeping you following a plot and more absorbing you with its neon-drenched style.
And it almost works. The best parts of the film are when it veers away from meandering too heavily around hard-to-follow narrative intricacies and lets itself settle into its rich crime thriller atmosphere and fun action sequences. The brawl in Zenong’s underworld gathering is the most immersive and engagingly-edited scene in the entire film; the brutal decapitation of Zenong’s fellow gang member is so startling that your breath escapes you; an umbrella is used as a means of murder weapon in perhaps the most entertaining way it possibly could’ve been. There’s even a fleeting scene in which a large group of people are just seen dancing to Boney M.’s iconic hit “Rasputin”. And from Liu Aiai’s femme fatale to Zenong’s hard-boiled antihero, to the constant radiance of neon fuchsia glowing over even the most lurid of squalor, Yinan’s dedication to the usual suspects of neo-noir does not go without a heavy and admiring sigh of utter contentment.
It almost entirely saves the film, if it weren’t for sequences that drag and muddle an already murky narrative, towards a resolution that might have felt more satisfying if the road to get there had not been paved in so many twists and turns that you are forced to fall behind. The film starts off as a recollection of past events, but soon plants itself firmly in present day and suddenly narrative focus is shifting from one character to another, leaving one questioning who the actual protagonist is meant to be. The Wild Goose Lake is punctuated by memorable moments and a densely cultivated mood, but leaves you wishing these moments lasted, instead, the length of the entire film. Style over substance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when the substance makes things hard to follow, the style can get left behind.