Depending on who you ask, the term “literary cinema” can have good or bad connotations. At worst it implies an over-reliance on handheld camera work, dull naturalism, and clumsy metaphors. While by no means a dreadful film, Anthony Chen’s The Breaking Ice certainly has those hang-ups in spades. In fact, I felt ready to deem it “Wistful Staring Set to Tinkly Music: The Movie.” Unfortunately, this all feels a bit like something that does more to give the appearance of a quiet, introspective character-driven drama without doing the hard work of giving its central three characters anything actually that interesting in terms of an arc or even melodramatic tension. 

Our trinity, in the standstill many face during their 20s, are residents of the Chinese city of Yanji. Nana (Zhou Dongyo) puts on a happy face at her day job as a tourist guide for the city’s winter attractions, but becomes much more morose in the presence of her similarly-depressed yet blustering boyfriend Han Xiao (Qu Chuxiao), whose own unexciting day job seems to be reeling from the economic ramifications of the pandemic. Living in an apartment that’s not so much cramped as it is drab and undecorated (the mattress is on the floor), one doesn’t really want to spend much time in their company.

The wild card in their strained relationship emerges in Haofeng (Liu Haoran), who’s introduced awkwardly interacting with others at a wedding before getting a call from a mental-health institution about a missed appointment, implying something beyond just bog-standard social anxiety at play. Nana and Haofeng inevitably cross paths while he’s wiling away time at the local tourist trap, and––taking some pity on the sad sack––she invites him out for a drink. And what do you know: there’s actually a handsome guy hidden under those glasses and awkward demeanor?

Now a throuple out of the French New Wave (think Jules et Jim or Band of Outsiders) emerges. Sex comes into play when Nana and Haofeng hop into bed (her troubled past will find a way to come up in the midst of copulation). Other fun for the three includes a thwarted competition to shoplift at a bookstore––not really as alluring as those French comparisons. But the problem is rather that the characters feel closed-off, or more like symbols than living, breathing people. Matters not helped by the fact that the actors are directed to give rather terse performances that elicit sympathy, maybe, but not really magnetism or dimension. 

The film breaks from its talky, contained atmosphere in the third act for a venture into the mysterious, yet doesn’t quite pull off the transcendence-in-encounter-with-blatantly-fake-creature effect that Wes Anderson nailed in The Life Aquatic or Asteroid City when the three encounter a regrettably computer-generated bear (a metaphor the film keeps telling you to set your watch to for showing up). But this is further part of the problem, Breaking Ice suddenly expanding its scope and editing choices just as it should be taking the characters to new emotional places instead. Ultimately as cold to the touch as its frozen setting, the lack of emotional catharsis speaks to a work high on words and ideas but low on a cohesive vision. 

The Breaking Ice screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: C+

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