The dangerous woman concept in the film ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’

Tingting HUTingting Hu is currently a PhD candidate researching Chinese cinema and cultural studies at Macquarie University, Australia. She achieved High Distinction for her MRes thesis at Macquarie and holds a Master of Arts Degree from Loughborough University in the UK. Tingting worked as a research assistant on the Ethnic Study on Chinese Music-entertainment Programs project and attended The International Convention of Asia Scholars in 2016 as a presenter with a scholarship. She also has three-years of professional experience working in global public relations agencies in Beijing.

‘Dangerous’ means ‘able or likely to cause harm or injury’ in the Oxford Dictionary [1], so on an intuitive level, a dangerous woman is someone who is able to cause harm or injury to others. However, as the female protagonist in the Chinese film Black Coal, Thin Ice (dir. Diao Yinan, 2014) shows, the dangerous woman is a multifaceted concept that is intimately linked to perceptions of women in society more generally. In particular, this essay examines the female protagonist, Wu Zhizhen (acted by Taiwanese actress, Gwei Lun-Mei) and her capacity for disguised softness, innocence and weakness (characteristics typically expected of women in traditional Chinese society), which act as a cover for her betrayal, shrewdness, strategy, emotional coldness, manipulation and the desire for murder—all of which are generally regarded as women’s transgression against male authority.

In the cinematic context, dangerous women are often recognised as the archetype of the femme fatale, associated with a sense of mystification and unease, and as villainous, or at least morally ambiguous (Doane, 1991) [2]. The femme fatale is a mysterious and seductive woman who attract men’s affection by her beauty, charm or sexual allure and leads them into unfavourable, even deadly conditions to realise her hidden purposes. As a textual fantasy, this consistent stereotype of the sexually powerful women can be read as a ‘symptom of male fears about feminism’ (Doane 1991: 2–3).

The femme fatale has often been located within discussions of film noir, with its emphasis on mystery, darkness, motivation and revelation (Hanson and O’Rawe, 2010) [3]. As a Chinese innovative film noir, Black Coal, Thin Ice was awarded the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival. It has achieved sales of more than RMB100 million at the box office in mainland China [4] and has won considerable praise from critics worldwide. Applying the filming style of the West-originated film noir, it articulates a Chinese contextualization of the femme fatale. That is, the film depicts a differentiated female protagonist, whose dangerousness does not appear on the surface but is hidden in a victim’s clothing.

From the Chinese traditional perspective persistently affected by Confucian values, women tend to be represented as soft, weak, patient, understanding and caring, which leads to the reinforcement of male dominance. In this film, the female protagonist is represented as a victim under the patriarchal pressure from men’s sexual assaults, dominant control and unexpected betrayal. Yet, this victimhood does not eliminate—rather it aggravates—her capacity to be dangerous. Taking advantage of her pretty and innocent appearance, she pretends to be victimized to arouse men’s sympathy and emotionally manipulate them, then uses men as the best weapon to execute murders.

The narrative is a romantic crime story centred around Wu Zhizhen, who works in a small laundry. In 1999, some human body parts were found in the coal dumps carried by trains and Wu’s husband, Liang Zhijun’s (acted by the mainland actor, Wang Xuebing) ID was found in the dead man’s pocket. So, Liang is identified as the victim. Five years later, two murders happen in a similar way, involving discarded body parts, with both victims romantically linked to Wu. A frustrated ex-detective, the male protagonist, Zhang Zili (acted by the mainland actor, Liao Fan), decides to find out the killer to resume his criminal investigation career. He believes Wu is the key suspect and pretends to pursue her to investigate the case. Finally, Zhang discovers that the killer is Wu’s husband, Liang, who faked his own death and murdered Wu’s lovers.

At this point, Wu is portrayed as a helpless victim, forbidden from any romance by her ‘dead’ husband, but what makes her dangerous is the way in which she responds to her husband’s control. She chooses to give Liang away to the police and lets him take full responsibility for committing the murders. Eventually, Liang is shot dead by the police. But the story is not over. If Liang was alive in the beginning, who was the first victim with his ID? Zhang still believes Wu is hiding something, so he continues investigating her. Fortunately, his emotional strategy motivates Wu to admit that she killed the first victim, Li Lianqing, who was a customer of the laundry. Because she unintentionally damaged Li’s fur coat and could not afford the compensation, Li sexually assaulted her more than once, and Wu killed him accidentally. To protect Wu, Liang dismembered the body, threw it into the coal dumps and left his own ID in the dead man’s pocket to fake his own death. When he discovers the truth, Zhang alerts the police, who finally arrest her after Zhang has been sexually intimate with Wu.

Wu is a dangerous woman because she is responsible for all the victims’ deaths. Her violence is not depicted in an evil way, but as understandable for a victim. Wu commits the first murder by killing Li who had sexually assaulted her, using the leverage of Wu’s damage of his fur coat. Then, another two men are dismembered by Liang because of their romance with Wu. So, all of the three victims’ deaths are caused by her directly; however, she still takes the position of being a victim who is monitored and controlled by her husband. Another victim worth mentioning is Zhang’s colleague, Wang, who is killed by Liang, when Liang undertakes surveillance of Wu and Zhang. Wang is the only victim who does not have an affair with Wu, but his death is still connected to her. Significantly, Wu makes her husband  responsible for all the murders and hands him over to the police, which causes his ultimate death. Thus, throughout the narrative, all of the victims’ deaths are Wu’s direct or indirect responsibility, indicating her capacity for being dangerous.

On screen, this dangerousness is embodied in the betrayal of her husband. There are two scenes in which Wu and Liang appear together in the same frame. The first is after Wu’s confession to investigator Zhang about Liang’s fake death, as well as his crime of murder and corpse dismemberment. Wu assists the police to inveigle Liang by meeting him in a dark hotel room. The background sound of leaking water renders a nervous and strange atmosphere. The camera firstly films Wu and Liang from the front, with Wu in the foreground with light on her face, while Liang is shot without light in the background, presenting him as hiding in the darkness. Then, the slightly canted high angle shot focuses on Wu sitting on the bed, emphasizing her ‘sexy’ and emaciated back inside her thin sweater. Liang gives his wife some money and Wu puts it into her pocket without hesitation. Liang sits down beside her and slowly caresses her back, but Wu shows her rejection by standing up and walking to the windows. Her husband follows her and, from behind, the camera shoots them both standing beside window, appearing as two dark shadows. When Liang proposes going out to buy some cigarettes, Wu says, “Wait” with a sobbing tone that implies that danger is waiting for Liang if he goes outside. In this scene, the two characters both have short and precise lines and the lighting remains dark—foreshadowing their deteriorated relationship, the upcoming danger for Liang, Wu’s betrayal, and her potential dangerousness.

The next scene, setting in the street where Liang and Wu go for cigarettes together, shows Wu’s betrayal and emotional coldness more directly. Liang firstly attempts to hold Wu’s hand, then touches her lower back, but finally drops his hand without touching her. From this sequence of behaviours, the audience can see his obvious affection for Wu even in the extremely dangerous circumstances. After Liang enters a convenience store, Wu walks away immediately without waiting for him, because she knows police are hunting him there. When police chase Liang and shoot him to death in the 1-minute-long scene, Wu hides in a dark corner and witnesses the process. In their relationship, Wu’s betrayal and emotional coldness manifest that she is a dangerous woman. In spite of her soft and weak appearance, she seems to have no hesitation in setting up the circumstances that lead her husband to death, who all the while aims to protect her and love her enough to turn himself into an invisible man without an identity.

Another feature of Wu’s dangerousness is her ability of using shrewdness to manipulate men. This is embodied in the complicated relationship between Wu and investigator Zhang. Their relationship begins as a strategic game because they both want something from each other. Zhang approaches Wu to investigate the case and get his career back on track, while Wu seeks Zhang’s protection and wants him to help her get rid of her husband. The 4-minute scene in a car where Wu confesses to Zhang about Liang’s crime is her longest monologue in the film, in which we see Wu choking back tears, and explaining the drama of Liang’s crime of killing all the victims and pretending to be one of them. However, unbeknown to Zhang, parts of the story are actually untrue—made up by Wu to shirk her own responsibility for killing the first victim.

Wu’s shrewdness and strategy, as features of dangerousness, are also revealed by her burying the ashes of Li, the first victim, under the tree in front of the laundry where she passes every day. Initially, this action was recognized by the police as part of her honourable grief of losing her husband when the police believed the first victim was Liang. However, when the truth is disclosed that the dead man is not her husband, but the victim she killed in the first place, this action seems very thrilling. For pretending her innocence, she can bear the reminder of her own killing every day and still stay calm, demonstrating her capacity for disguised innocence, as well as for emotionally manipulating even herself.

Thus, the female protagonist of Black Coal, Thin Ice is indeed a dangerous woman. She displays the capacity to challenge male dominance beneath a surface of pretended innocence and weakness, the latter of which are typically recognised as feminine traits from the perspective of Chinese traditional values. Nevertheless, in this patriarchy-oriented Chinese film noir, she ultimately fails to escape legal punishment, suggesting that women’s transgression of threatening the male authority remain prohibitive and doomed to a tragic ending.



1. Refer to, access date June 16, 2016.
2. Doane, M, A. (1991) Femme Fatales. New York: Routledge.
3. Hanson, H. and O’Rawe, C. (2010) The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
4. Refer to, access date June 16, 2016.