The latest film from acclaimed writer-director Anthony Chen tells the story of three disaffected youths, but ultimately feels underdone
Around the midpoint of The Breaking Ice by multiple Cannes award winner Anthony Chen, our three twenty-something Chinese protagonists are bunched closely together in a sculpture park in the northern city of Yanji in the dead of night. Abstract, classical, harsh and soft shapes surround them, all mimicking human forms coming together, and the meek, suicidal tourist Haofeng (Haoran Liu) asks his newfound local friends if they’ve ever considered ending their lives.
Nana (Dongyu Zhou) has by now confided in Haofeng in self-harming the way he has done, an intimacy that, combined with a mutual attraction, led them into bed together. Chef Xiao (Chuxiao Qu), on the other hand, is the most emotionally guarded of the three, and perhaps the most resistant to indulge such sentimental readings of life and death. He likens Haofeng to a novelist, pinpointing a main thematic concern of Chen’s drama – young people’s lives are filled with romanticization.
In lieu of finding purpose from our own society, we fight our keenly felt malaise, alienation and angst by getting wrapped up in self-imposed, hyper-personal narratives swelling in emotion. In Haofeng’s case, they can be dangerous in isolation, but he soon allows himself a romantic acceptance of his extended dissatisfaction. It’s not a permanent solution, rather a transitional phase to set them up for lasting fulfilment.
Such a premise has proven successful for the best part of a century now, and while Chen’s roving, curious camerawork and gift for extracting compelling performance are clear highlights throughout, The Breaking Ice still leaves you with a longing for emotions of sizeably deeper complexity, as if attention hasn’t been adequately given to locating truth beneath the romantic.
Something is missing from each of the central trio’s arcs: Haofeng’s self-destructive ideations make him the most wounded and vulnerable, but he risks feeling too quiet compared to the others. Nana is a great big ball of contradictions, admirably portrayed by Zhou, but the sudden intrusion of a thwarted figure skating career is unpolished.
Qu gives the best performance in the film – the ways Xiao stares and carries himself call to mind so many men from our own lives – but the conflicts and envies that fill the spaces between him and Haofeng and Nana aren’t fleshed out as much as they should be. In a film that so effectively sketches the intimacy of the malaised, more should be made of the unspoken kinship between the men silently competing for Nana’s affection.
Just like the ice we see harvested in the opening moments, or the cubes Haofeng won’t stop chewing, this trifecta of disaffected youths will melt away to reveal something new or crack under the simmering tension. With so much to commend, it’s a touch disappointing The Breaking Ice only flirts with emotional transcendence, often feeling underdone (the script was apparently finished a mere 10 days before production started). Chen’s talents can’t be denied – but they should have been used to sculpt something more refined.
The Breaking Ice was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch