The man is Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), a young gangster recently enlisted in a competition to steal as many motorcycles as possible in one night. As we see in flashback, this went horribly wrong, in a manner so abrupt and over-the-top many viewers may be tempted to laugh.
The woman is Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) a sometime sex worker who was originally asked to track down Zenong’s long-estranged wife (Regina Wan), and has now come to meet him in her stead. Her motives and agenda remain uncertain till the end, but immediately she’s one of the film’s most striking design elements: a slender woman in red, with cropped hair, suspicious heavy-lidded eyes, and a plaintive voice that sometimes undercuts her languid poise.
Once all this exposition has been laid out, we follow the pair on the run as they head towards the lake of the title, tangling on the way with the forces on their trail, and inevitably drawing closer together, though psychologically both remain largely blank.
A degree of social commentary is implied in the sympathy for individuals at the expense of the collective, and in the treatment of crooks and cops as close to interchangeable: there are parallel “meeting” scenes where each group carves up responsibility for the territory to be covered.
But primarily the film is an exercise in style, derivative in some ways and original in others. In action sequences, Diao’s panning camera movements can suggest a less austere version of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien: characters will drop out of sight before the camera catches up with them again, or we’ll see them skulking round corners, trying to glimpse others who then come into view.
Diao is fond, too, of the B-movie device of condensing key moments into a few emblematic shots. A murder, for instance, can be conveyed through a couple of close-ups — a knife flashing out, followed by a handful of banknotes disappearing into the water.
Often, he seems bent on preventing us from seeing too much directly, while letting sounds — rain, gunfire, deliberately tinny music — convey what’s happening just out of sight. A crucial sexual encounter unfolds in this discreet yet unambiguous manner, in contrast to a rape scene where the presentation is deliberately jarring and blunt.
There are moments that approach magic realism: a scene in a zoo with a tiger looking on blankly, and an equally curious encounter in a near-empty carnival tent. Set against this is the daylight world, evoked in foreshortened scenes that might almost be documentary, suggesting — as a good many Chinese films do — that a permanently slumped, hopeless condition is common to many “ordinary” folk.
Diao is out to seduce us, but unlike the recent, somewhat comparable Long Day’s Journey Into Night — a first feature by Bi Gan, a younger Chinese stylist — this is not a film that lets you relax and enjoy the ride. There are jolts throughout, in the bursts of staccato editing as well as the shifts of tone — making it hard to say how far the film “works”, whether you’re expecting a gritty genre exercise, an otherworldly romance, or a state-of-the-nation report.
But this means that we’re getting something that can’t entirely be found elsewhere. And The Wild Goose Lake is, undoubtedly, cinema — which is to say that Diao cares about colour, movement and sound, and that he’s able to combine a range of mostly familiar elements in an inventive, playful way.