A sweet, shimmeringly beautiful film about how life can flow and then freeze and then thaw into something entirely new if you let it, Anthony Chen’s “The Breaking Ice” finds hope in the coldest of places. In this case, that place is the small Chinese border city of Yanji during the depths of its endless winter, when people’s breath is as thick as the gray fumes billowing from factory chimneys, and the snow-capped peak of Changbai Mountain seems closer to paradise than it is to Pyongyang. More than half a million people live there (many of them ethnic Koreans), but few seem to call it home. It’s as if they were stuck there on their way somewhere else and, in the wake of a pandemic that has restricted travel and imperiled the economy, are still waiting to be unfrozen. They are still waiting for the heat they need to become liquid again.
Cold soul of a quintessential “sad warm people” film, Nana (a remarkable Zhou Dongyu) has learned to fake the warmth she forgot to find in herself. By day she works as a tour guide with an expansive smile who talks busloads of tourists through the same old talk of local Yanji history, as if she’s stuck in a time loop only she can see. By night, Nana is a prickly ice queen who tears up local dance floors and seems to take a cold degree of pleasure in fending off the dashing and willowy Han Xiao (“The Wandering Earth” star Qu Chuxiao), the whose Korean-Chinese family runs the restaurant where Nana ends her tours. And then — as so often happens in life — a suicidal guy in a sweater vest shows up out of nowhere and changes the temperature for everyone.
We are never told why Li Haofeng (a reserved but receptive Liu Haoran) looks over every ledge he can find as if wondering if it might be the only onebut the vagueness of her depression suits a film that is far less about biographical details than it is about the vast banks of unexpressed feelings in which they harden each winter.
We know that Haofeng is a Shanghai-based financial guy who came to Yanji for a friend’s wedding, we know that he chews ice cubes as if he savors the sound of them opening in his mouth, and we know that he sees something in Nana – even from his perch on a rickety fire escape 20 feet off the ground — which inspires him to hop on his bus rather than leap to his death, but his wiry goatee is thick enough to hide a few secrets. As beautiful as Nana is, her gender doesn’t seem that high on Haofeng’s list of concerns. Maybe he’s just seduced by her cheerful enthusiasm, and then doubly so when he realizes she can fake it from scratch.
In any case, Haofeng’s attraction to Nana is as vague and elemental as the rest of Chen’s film. Like many of the people we meet in Yanji, Haofeng isn’t as drawn to the city as he is stuck there (Nana and Xiao take him in and take him out, after Haofeng loses his phone and misses his flight home). He’s too numb from the cold to feel like he belongs anywhere else.
A telltale symbol of the wealth that makes its owner such an odd duck among the decidedly blue-collar local population, Haofeng’s wristwatch stops working shortly after his arrival in Yanji, its hands forever stuck at 4 o’clock: 45. Many of the scenes in this film are set during those pre-dawn hours — between the darkness of a long night and the possibility of a new day — that Haofeng’s watch looks barely broken.
And while Haofeng’s relative wealth is rarely mentioned aloud, his freedom to leave Yanji at any time adds a curious undercurrent to the fact that he chooses not to. Over the long weekend that he, Xiao, and Nana spend drinking soju together and running through snowdrifts, Haofeng’s decision to stay seems to remind his new friends of the liminality of their own lives and that the boundaries they’ve placed on themselves themselves are just as arbitrary and imaginary as what separates China from North Korea.
Haofeng literally screams over that boundary in a scene that – in keeping with the spirit of Chen’s previous work (eg “Drift”, “Ilo Ilo”) – is too ethereal to be weighed down by the obviousness of its meaning. Here, the Singaporean director is something of an outsider himself, and brings a palpable sense of Go through to a film in which spiritual freedom collides with the immobility of purgatory. It’s amazing how quickly youth can rot away when fenced off or denied a future, and “The Breaking Ice” percolates with the residual energy of people whose collective life force simply won’t let it lay down and surrender.
That energy is expressed in a wide variety of ways. At its most exuberant, the three members of the film’s near-love triangle race through a bookshelf in an explicit homage to “Jules and Jim” as Kin Leonn’s beautiful score shines above the score. Later, they search for each other in a huge ice maze, happy to be lost for once. Elsewhere—near the end of one of those drunken nights where it seems like the world doesn’t exist beyond the room you’re in—Nana cries as Xiao plays a song on her guitar. She lets out a leak every time she feels an emotion, melting away every night and building up every morning. Most of these scenes are hazy but perfectly handled, their empty spaces thick with unfulfilled dreams.
Chen only stumbles when he tries to fill in those blanks with solid detail, as he does by giving Nana a simple backstory that makes her embittered rendering too literal for a story best expressed through a less defined sense of yearning (a final pivot towards the ‘allegory helps in this sense). This gritty and persistently sensitive film resonates more strongly when he is lost in the ice maze than when he is retracing his steps to the entrance. “The Breaking Ice” stays with you because it doesn’t lead its characters out of the labyrinth, it just melts the walls that separate them.
“The Breaking Ice” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.