In 2013, filmmaker Anthony Chen’s first feature, “Ilo Ilo,” won the coveted Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Centered around the inseparable bond between a 10-year-old Singaporean boy and his Filipina nanny, Chen’s full-length debut deployed a specific lens — a family weathering the 1997 Asian financial crisis — to tell a universal story exploring the nooks and crannies of our shared humanity. Flash forward to exactly a decade later, Chen makes his triumphant return to Cannes (in the Un Certain Regard section) with “The Breaking Ice,” a moving, humanist snapshot of China’s lost youths told through a ships-in-the-night friendship.
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In frigid Yanji on China’s northernmost border with North Korea, Haofeng (Liu Haoran) — a young professional from Shanghai grappling with his own failures — is feeling unmoored. Taking a local bus on a whim, he is instantly captivated by the travel company’s tour guide: the charming Nana (Zhou Dongyu). The two strike up a quick camaraderie, soon to be joined by Xiao (Qu Chuxiao), an aggrieved restaurant worker and Nana’s friend. Plied with alcohol and the buzz of new companionship, the three fast friends embark upon a short-lived — yet unforgettable — journey, entwining their personal demons and bubbling desires across a wintry landscape.
Very much like “Ilo Ilo,” “The Breaking Ice’s” fascinatingly narrow milieu is utilized to strike at the heart of pervasive, emotional truths. Tugging at threads explored throughout his entire filmography, specifically the weight of intimate bonds shared among strangers, Chen carefully constructs his whirlwind story through the backdrop of Yanji. It might be played out to label a setting as “a character in and of itself,” but “The Breaking Ice” deliberately wraps its three out-of-towner protagonists around an inscrutable city as alive as its visitors. A bustling yet icy locale sitting on the peninsula border of China and Korea, Yanji has denizens within a hybrid culture speaking both Mandarin and Korean, emphasizing our trio of lost souls and their abbreviated journey to find some semblance of self.
Leave it to Chen to circumvent the pitfalls of melodrama with his humanist approach. The inevitable love triangle — two men falling for the same woman — is beautifully understated as a thorny undercurrent rather than a main attraction. Aided by DP Yu Jin-Pin’s sumptuously intimate lensing — through hazy, sensual close-ups and vibrant compositions — “The Breaking Ice” favors the intensity of the red-hot bonds of ephemeral friendships over trite, heightened theater.
Chen has himself copped to his influences, citing the sway of masters such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, but it’s no mere imitation. Drawn through three mesmerizing performances from Liu Haoran, Zhou Dongyu, and Qu Chuxiao, “The Breaking Ice” transmogrifies its admiration for French New Wave as loving, affecting homage. The central dynamic — and truncated chronology — takes after Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” but the trio clearly speaks with a different cadence to Chen’s own fascination with China’s youth. Godard’s iconic traipse through the Louvre in “Bande à part” is reconfigured here as well, morphed into a playful shoplifting competition at a bookstore and an uproarious highlight.
What Anthony Chen’s films lack in sticking to the ribs is more than made up for in their emotional verisimilitude, and “The Breaking Ice” is no exception. Filmed with barely a working script, Chen’s feature-length return to Cannes is a daring experiment that pays off handsomely, an exploration of the entire spectrum of a generation’s hopes, dreams, and anxieties through a laser-focused milieu. Its interweaving of powerful performances and spiritual complexity, eventually melded with local folklore, is nothing short of beautiful. Welcome back, Anthony Chen. [A-]
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