While most critics and punters alike were predicting that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood would take home the prestigious Golden Bear award at Berlinale this year, it came as something of a surprise to see Diao Yinan’s eccentric neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice rewarded in its place. Though certainly a unique, and distinctively stylistic offering, this flawed piece can certainly consider itself somewhat fortunate to have won the much coveted, top prize.

Beginning in 1999 in Northern China, decapitated bodily parts turn up mysteriously in a coal mine, as a foreboding atmosphere lingers over the community as further morbid discoveries are made. When investigating the case, it becomes even murkier when the incompetent law enforcement find themselves engulfed in a shoot out at a local hairdressers, leaving two of the police officers dead. One of the survivors is the cop Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) who is suspended following the incident. Five years down the line and a harrowingly similar set of events occur, and with the old case still unsolved, it sets Zhang off again, as he’s determined to resolve this once and for all, and repent for his previous ineptitude.

Given the nature to this conventional detective drama, there is the potential here for a riveting murder mystery, as everything lends itself to the aforementioned genre, while we even have our archetypal femme fatale in the form of Gwei Lun-Mei’s Wu Zhizhen. However it grows all too convoluted, confounding the viewer on several occasions. It’s a steady blend of styles and genres, and Yinan must be commended for his innovation in that regard, however the content itself remains shallow, and the politically-minded messages conveyed are somewhat unsubtle.

In a similar vein to other thrillers to hail from East Asia, there’s an erratic nature to this title, and a wit prevalent throughout, bearing similarities, in that respect, to the likes of Oldboy and Pieta in how they blend the treacherous elements with an often comical volatility, with several quirks and absurdities implemented in thrroughout. Yinan ensures this droll, outlandish humour is maintained, regardless of where the narrative takes us, or how dark this tale becomes. Fan encapsulates this notion perfectly, as though we put our faith in him to solve this baffling case, he has a clumsiness about him that’s almost endearing, embracing the farcical nature of the film.

The film struggles with its finale however, undoing much of the good work that comes before. The opening act signals a film that could amount to something quite special, but as the story progresses, the tedium kicks in and the shortcomings in the story become increasingly tangible. An accomplished piece of filmmaking this may be, but a worthy Golden Bear winner, sadly this is not.