THE STORY – In cold wintry Yanji, a city on China’s northern border, young urbanite Haofeng, visiting from Shanghai, feels lost and adrift. By chance, he goes on a tour led by Nana, a charming tour guide who instantly fascinates him. She introduces him to Xiao, a personable but frustrated restaurant worker. The three bond quickly over a drunken weekend. Confronting their individual traumas, their frozen desires slowly thaw as they seek to liberate themselves from an icy world.
THE CAST – Zhou Dongyu, Liu Haoran & Qu Chuxiao
THE TEAM – Anthony Chen (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
Peering into the world of isolation has always been a provocative theme to explore in storytelling. However, it feels as if the recent years have only made such dissections even more prescient. When walls were built and people shielded themselves from all other interactions, profound loneliness was impossible to avoid. Even after borders came down and intermingling resumed, the specter of solitude remained. It’s an emotional state that can be difficult to quantify, especially for a younger generation barely coming to terms with their own blossoming adulthood that now must shoulder an even greater burden. “The Breaking Ice” peers into the lives of individuals who suffer through such tribulations. Its cultural touchstones may be specific, but its concepts are universal. This is what makes the final results intriguing, yet there is also an inescapable sense of an unfulfilled sentiment.
The film opens with a young man named Haofeng (Liu Haoran), who has traveled from Shanghai to attend a friend’s wedding in Yanji, a city that sits on the northern Chinese border with North Korea. However, he cannot enjoy the bliss due to an overwhelming mental depression. He is constantly on the verge of suicide but manages to barely pull himself from the brink every time. During his travels, he meets a tour guide named Nana (Zhou Dongyu), whose more outgoing personality is at odds with his more introverted self. Yet, there is an undeniable spark of attraction. When he accidentally loses his phone, she offers to take him in for the night and meet up with her friend Xiao (Qu Chuxiao). Xiao works in one of the local restaurants, where he tolerates the mundanity of his life while being frustrated with the potential for more. He and Nana agree to show Haofeng more of the city, and the trio creates a strong friendship that bonds them tighter as time passes. It’s a dichotomy that will reveal a personal truth for all involved.
Anthony Chen calmly observes the delicate balance of these characters’ interactions that slowly draws out their true desires. It is a portrait that elegantly captures the anxious malaise of today’s youth, tethered to one another by a sensitive twine that can easily fracture. There is a weighty sadness conveyed in every closeup that sketches the strain they all endure. The scenes match well with the idyllic landscapes, which also showcase the vast arena that can be either bombarded with civilization or emptied except for the harsh natural environment. The relationship formed is wholly endearing, and their dynamic is evocative of the group in “Band of Outsiders” if drenched in far more melancholy. It’s easy to be taken in by their plights as the moody score drifts one into their soulful discoveries.
At the same time, the narrative doesn’t consistently find itself captivating. The listless wandering through these lives can often contribute to lethargic pacing, stalling the momentum that would otherwise naturally build within these small moments. An emotional catharsis is sensed, yet the story meanders to a frustrating degree. The characterizations are painted quite broadly in the beginning, and while this eventually becomes a more nuanced analysis, its focus struggles to become cohesive. This is particularly felt for the character of Xiao, who seems to get short-changed with his emotional arc. The others complete their emotional odysseys in a far more satisfying manner, whereas Xiao’s resolution comes across as stunted and underwhelming. It leaves the film on a sour note of dissatisfaction. The story has much to admire from its thematic commentary but labors to find a gratifying resolution for its many aspects.
It must be said that all three performers at the center here deliver captivating work. The most impressive is Liu, masterfully embodying the tortured soul that wrestles to find the joy to win out over the overwhelming despair. His reserved nature and meek personality make up the exact presentation necessary to showcase this tragedy, an identity occasionally buoyed by an elusive effervescence. It’s a quiet yet layered portrayal that is quite compelling. Similar sentiments are shared for Zhou, though she must also contend with a less innovative personal backstory. Still, she portrays how inviting this person can be and how such affectations are merely to cover the unresolved damage beneath the surface. Even Qu deserves recognition for making an impression with his impactful screen presence despite being given the weakest material. All three have a warm chemistry, with just enough bristles to develop a more realistic rapport that fits the overall tone.
“The Breaking Ice” contains so much that is easily appreciated. Its method of diving into the chaotic mentality of these young people who yearn so much for a sense of connectivity within a splintered environment is an engrossing sentiment. The performances crystalize this examination with three very strong turns. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite articulate these ideas in the most cohesive manner. Despite the arresting filmmaking, the storytelling falters in creating a persistently enthralling setting. And yet, what is displayed here is a piece that manifests an exploration into devastating loneliness that ironically forges the connections made between one another. It may not be reliably engaging, but it is nonetheless provocative.