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At The Movies: Anthony Chen’s The Breaking Ice reveals its secrets slowly

The Breaking Ice (M18)

97 minutes, opens on Thursday3 stars

The story: In the snowy city of Yanji, close to China’s border with North Korea, tourist Haofeng (Liu Haoran) meets Nana (Zhou Dongyu), a disaffected guide who makes a living showing K-drama-obsessed tourists the culture of the area’s Korean ethnic group. Haofeng, who appears to be a well-mannered corporate executive from a large southern city, is introduced to Nana’s friend Xiao (Qu Chuxiao), a rough-edged restaurant worker who loves motorcycles. Over the span of four days, the trio explore the city and its forested outskirts, and come to acknowledge new feelings about one another and life.

Typically, students in film and creative writing are told to make art about what they know, which explains the common phenomenon of student films and stories about moody young people drifting around town, grappling with questions big (“Who am I?”) and small (“How do I make her notice what a cool guy I am?”).

Singapore writer-director Anthony Chen’s preternaturally mature first feature Ilo Ilo (2013) was a family drama that rocketed him to the top, a feat followed by another social realist drama about family obligations and transgressive love, Wet Season (2019).

This fourth film – the English-language Drift is technically his third film, as it premiered a few months before The Breaking Ice – involves Chen doing what much younger film-makers do: Make a movie about young people on the cusp.

The three appear to be afflicted by varying degrees of alienation and ennui.

Chen is too smart a film-maker to name their specific woes, but the usual suspects are here. There are hints about wasted potential, thwarted ambitions, family burdens, mental health issues as well as, of course, romantic and sexual frustrations.

He has said that his inspiration for the film is the 1962 French New Wave classic Jules And Jim, but the resemblance is only skin-deep. Yes, The Breaking Ice does feature two men and one woman embarking on a journey, but it has none of the French film’s overt romanticism or tri-cornered sexual tension.

It is a more low-key affair, a fact that has as much to do with Chen’s realist approach as with the reality that these characters are Chinese. They do not talk about their feelings because either they cannot articulate them or there are social inhibitions.

Nana, in spite of her seeming reserve, is the most forward of the three and is the one who does most of the ice-breaking. She is impulse-driven and finds comfort in ways that preclude dialogue.

She carries echoes of actress Yeo Yann Yann’s Ling, the teacher from Wet Season caught in a web of responsibilities and who finds escape through an imprudent love affair.

The Breaking Ice is a quiet, layered work that relies on allusions and symbols (scars, national borders, ice, animals, Chinese and Korean legends) to deal with the topic of young people going through a crisis. It is a rewarding watch, but does not give up its secrets readily.

Hot take: The film delivers eye candy through its attractive main characters and travelogue-based storytelling, but requires close viewing for it to reveal all it has to offer.

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