The distinctive location of Singaporean writer-director Anthony Chen’s latest film, The Breaking Ice (Ran Dong), quietly but eloquently underscores the circumstances of its young protagonists, each of them seemingly stuck, their lives suspended as if frozen in place. The city of Yanji in northeastern China has sprawling, painterly landscapes blanketed in snow and a large Korean community proudly preserving its cultural identity in the shadow of the North Korean border. It’s a setting that renders the isolation of the story’s three outsiders starker, just as it makes their bonding more immediate, an urgent lifeline in the enveloping chill.
Following his English-language debut, Drift, about an African refugee paralyzed by trauma, Chen returns here to the gentler observational style and hushed intimacy of his gorgeous domestic drama, Ilo Ilo, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature in Cannes a decade ago.
The Breaking Ice
The Bottom Line
A satisfying minor-key character study.
The new film’s characters — a woman and two men in their 20s, played with exquisite restraint by three appealing, impeccably naturalistic actors — are afflicted by sorrows, frustrations and anxieties seldom articulated, but their many moments of introspection reveal as much as they withhold.
Chen cites his love for Jules and Jim as a source of structural inspiration, but that gets spun here into a rapidly evolving relationship that unfolds over just a few intense days. This is not a conventional romantic triangle so much as an impressionistic Generation Z portrait; its reflections on disappointment and stasis seem likely to resonate widely with young audiences, irrespective of their cultural backgrounds.
The center of the trio is Nana (Zhou Dongyu), who has relocated to Yanji to put a crushing blow at home behind her and now works as a tour guide, ferrying Chinese visitors around town by bus to experience authentic Korean traditions. One of her tour stops is a restaurant where Xiao (Qu Chuxiao) works. Nana has a half-hearted, spiky relationship with the good-natured slacker, who moved there from Sichuan after dropping out of school to help his aunt and her Korean husband, who own the joint.
The third element is Haofeng (Liu Haoran), who works in finance in Shanghai and is in Yanji for the wedding of a former classmate. Holding back in interactions with his old friends, he participates reluctantly in the festivities. He wears the obvious signs of depression and is possibly suicidal, a suggestion furthered by the calls he keeps evading from a mental health counseling center.
When Haofeng takes the bus tour, he is drawn to Nana, who remains somewhat aloof until he loses his cellphone and she lends him some cash. Nana later invites Haofeng along to dinner with her and Xiao, and at the end of a drunken evening, all three end up back at her apartment, a privilege her quasi-boyfriend has never before been granted.
It’s a soulful hangout scene, with DP Yu Jing-Pin’s camera closing in on the faces of all three characters to explore their solitude as Xiao picks up a guitar and sings a sweet, melancholy love song with an emotional nakedness seldom seen in Chinese-language films.
When Haofeng misses his flight back to Shanghai, Nana and Xiao encourage him to stay on for a few days. Much of The Breaking Ice involves Chen observing the subtle shifts in the dynamic between the three of them during this period. Haofeng takes tentative steps out of his shell and sleeps with Nana, who shares her broken dream with him. Xiao is aware of what’s happening, but he registers it all with no drama, maintaining his place in the triangle and swallowing whatever hurt he feels. Nor does sex really change much between Nana and Haofeng.
There are poignant scenes that don’t so much propel the narrative as deepen our acquaintance with the characters, both as pensive individuals and as a collective unit formed more by accident than design. They stroll along the North Korean border fence, visit a zoo, attempt to shoplift in a bookstore, get lost in the tall corridors of an ice maze.
The gentle rhythms of Hoping Chen and Soo Mun Thye’s editing and the shimmering strands of Singaporean musician Kin Leonn’s score make these loose, free-flowing episodes highly pleasurable, even as they subtly point up the fact that none of the three friends really belongs in this strange, in many ways foreign place.
In the beautiful closing act, they take a trip up the Changbai Mountains, aiming to see Heaven Lake, a breathtaking body of water in a volcanic crater that straddles the border between China and North Korea. Chen sets the scene for catharsis, with worsening weather conditions affecting their trek. But instead, the film takes a graceful swerve into folklore, art and even a hint of magic realism that profoundly touches all three of them.
Rich in feeling yet never emotionally emphatic, The Breaking Ice has an uncluttered narrative simplicity that’s mirrored in the shooting style and nicely offset by the nuanced complexity of the relationships. The closing notes of hope and renewal are lovely.