Director: Anthony Chen
Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Liu Haoran, Qu Chuxiao
Runtime: 1 hr 37 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scene)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 7 September 2023
Synopsis: THE BREAKING ICE is set in Yanji, a border city in the north of China. It tells the story of the blossoming relationship among three young adults in their twenties, set over a few short days in the winter snow.
Anthony Chen’s first foray into mainland China sees the Hong Kong-based Singaporean filmmaker venture to the frozen landscapes of Yanji, a small border city within shouting distance of North Korea. Against the working-class landscape of industrial smokestacks and the snowy peaks of Changbai Mountains, Chen devises a three-hander as a “love letter to the young people of China”. That however should not be taken to imply that ‘The Breaking Ice’ is in any way whimsical; in fact, we should warn you that even though it is never heavy-handed, it does deal with heavy themes such as alienation and ennui.
Indeed, each one of Chen’s protagonists is struggling with some degree of dislocation at the start. Nana (Zhou Dongyu) is a disaffected guide who gamely puts on a smile to host the busloads of tourists who have come to visit the city’s ethnic folk villages and hopefully support its local economy, but she quickly falls back on pursed lips once her customers are out of sight. She also nurses a foot injury whose significance will only become clearer in the second half of the movie, and without giving too much away, let’s just say hers is the most fully formed character arc of wasted potential, thwarted ambition and deep-seated regret.
Haofeng (Liu Haoran) is a Shanghai-based urbanite visiting Yanji to attend a friend’s wedding. Though his habit of chewing on ice cubes and looking over ledges makes it clear from the very start he is suffering from borderline depression, it is never satisfyingly clear what led him to this state, except some vague mention of how this boy from Henan had somehow cracked under the parental pressure of making it in life. Completing the triumvirate is Han Xiao (Qu Chuxiao), a rough-edged but good-natured local who works at his aunt’s Korean restaurant that Nana hosts her tour groups at for lunch. Unlike Nana and Haofeng, Han Xiao is simply adrift, and would have been content remaining a slacker enjoying an on-off flirtation with Nana if not for an unexpected romance that develops between Nana and Haofeng.
Over the span of four days, the trio traverse the city and its outskirts, including a walk along the border fenceline with North Korea, a visit to a night-time funfair where Nana is reminded of her past as a promising figure skater, and a massive ice maze where they play hide and seek with one another. They also spend time at a dance club where Nana and Han Xiao share an intimate dance while Haofeng wallows in his unhappiness chewing ice cubes, and indulge in a game of shoplifting while in a bookstore. Their sprees culminate in a trip up to the Changbai mountains to visit Heaven Lake, where an unexpected near-death encounter will force them to confront their frustrations, fears and future.
Given Chen’s previous works, it is not surprising that one may expect this to be a character study and therefore come off somewhat disappointed. Indeed, even though it is a relationship drama, it isn’t intended in the same way as ‘Ilo Ilo’ or ‘Wet Season’ was; rather, this is best appreciated as a heartfelt observation of three people whose lives intersect in intimately profound ways over a brief but consequential period. And in that regard, it is amazing how Chen lets the characters grow on you, develop within the course of the movie, and find hope, resolve and confidence to forge new beginnings on their own and with each other.
Those familiar with Chen’s oeuvre will know that he is a detailed filmmaker, and it is therefore entirely deliberate that we only know so much of the back stories of these characters. Whilst some would clearly prefer a more in-depth treatment, it is equally true that we know as much about their past as they do of one another, which in no way diminishes the experience they have with each other during those momentous days together. That said, it is true that a recurring motif of a runaway criminal never quite solidifies into anything truly compelling, but that is thankfully largely kept to the periphery of the movie.
In more ways than one, ‘The Breaking Ice’ sees Chen break out of the mould of his comfort zone. Not only has he chosen to apply his filmmaking sensibilities to reflect the undercurrents of today’s Mainland Chinese youth, he has also challenged himself to work with an entirely unfamiliar set of cast and crew in a foreign setting. Though it does feel familiar in some regard, it is nonetheless still an impressive achievement for the Singapore-born, now Hong Kong-based director, especially as a new chapter in his journey towards being a truly international filmmaker. Our heartiest congratulations to Chen, and we hope local audiences will continue to support local talent – after all, it may not be set in Singapore, but its themes, language and sentimentality is absolutely universal and just as keenly relatable.
(Intimate, heartfelt and ultimately uplifting, this tender observation of three people whose lives intersect over a brief but consequential period is an impressive new chapter for Singapore-born filmmaker Anthony Chen)
Review by Gabriel Chong