Review: Neon-Soaked The Wild Goose Lake is a Modern Noir Thriller

This Chinese film set in, of all places, the labyrinthian city of Wuhan, is a modern noir thriller and a terrific mystery, told partially in flashback. It begins when a woman meets a man, telling him that his wife can’t make it but that she would act as a stand-in for her, and the mystery only deepens from there. From director Diao Yinan (Black Coal, Thin Ice), The Wild Goose Lake is a rain-soaked story of Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), a minor gangster who accidentally shoots a police officer, and the manhunt that follows, with both law enforcement and the city’s underworld moving through the alleys looking for our antihero to collect the rather large dead-or-alive reward for his capture. As neon-soaked as Wuhan seems at times, it also feels like a place easy to hide from seeking eyes.

Wild Goose Lake
Image courtesy of Film Movement

Our femme fatale is Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), a part-time prostitute who is recruited to take the place of the fugitive’s estranged wife, a woman who hasn’t seen him in years. He wants his wife to turn him in and receive the reward money, but she refuses to be a part of his criminal world, so the similar-looking prostitute is brought in as a proxy who will then turn most of the money over to the wife and their family. The visuals of The Wild Goose Lake are the real stars of the film and take what could have been standard-issue fight and chase scenes and turn them into something unique and even surreal at times. Just when you think you’ve seen all the ways a person can get killed, this film invents a few new ones.

The filmmaker’s use of color, rain, grime, and an army of scooters combine to make something that practically invites your eyes to examine every corner of the frame. The composition is meticulous, deliberate, and sumptuous, but Diao Yinan never misses an opportunity to give us the counterpoint—seedy locations, bloody killings, and more double-crosses than you can keep track of, like an respectable neo-noir should deliver. Aside from the countless gang members after him, our protagonist is also dodging the police, led by Captain Liu (Liao Fan), who seems just as prone to and accepting of extreme violence as the criminals he’s attempting to stop.

At a certain point, the films stops being about the money and becomes an almost existential battle over the soul of Zhou Zenong, who is slowly beginning to fall for Liu Aiai at about the same pace as he’s losing his trust in her intentions. Will she turn him in? Will they run off together? In the end, the answer doesn’t matter as much as whether Zhou Zenong can live with what he’s done. The film cares as much as about its character’s emotional state of mind as it does about the crimes he’s committed or how many people are chasing him down. The plot itself isn’t original, but the execution is precise and impactful.

The film is being offered as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from your Sofa virtual cinema program.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.