Film Forum Flicks: “The Whistlers” versus “Wild Goose Lake”


“The Whistlers” features Vlad Ivanov and Antonio Buíl. (Courtesy of Facebook)

“The Whistlers” is a slick, toneless film that begins like a family-friendly romantic comedy and ends like a Disney flick. The middle parts have to do with crooked police and mafia murder. Vlad Ivanov plays Cristi, a cop in cahoots with a drug dealer turned criminal-businessman, Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea). Cristi has to look to the mob for help after his illegal ally is arrested by his own unit, led by an icily amoral redhead lieutenant (Rodica Lazar), who ordered a lackey to plant cocaine on Zsolt in order to be able to charge him in the first place. Furthermore, it soon turns out that before all this, Zsolt was planning on skipping town with his beautiful girlfriend Gilda (Cartinel Marlon) and a stash of 30 million euros — leaving behind Cristi, cops and the mob alike.

Already there’s enough backstabbing and intrigue to spend a whole 130 minutes of screen-time unraveling. However, director Corneliu Porumboiu has something else in mind, and begins his condensed 97- minute film with Cristi arriving at a mountainous island in the Canaries, where he is to rendezvous with Gilda and a mobster in order to be taught a secret new tactic for avoiding police detection: a whistling language. 

This is the revelation which, in more ways than one, begins the film, after a breezy opening credits scene of Cristi’s boat coasting to the island shore set to upbeat Iggy Pop music. It’s not even so much a plot device as a statement of intentions for Porumboiu. The story he’s interested in telling isn’t so much a straightforwardly convoluted thriller as it is a perverse comedy of errors and crime hijinks, told through a patchwork of flashbacks introduced by colorful title cards. 

His humor is the kind that plays with the macabre, juxtaposing the dead serious with the ridiculous. Midway through the film, a group of mobsters are hosting a secret meeting in an abandoned warehouse somewhere on the island when a knock is heard at the door. It’s a bumbling American, a lone overweight filmmaker in cargo shorts scouting out locations for his next picture. He rambles on for a few seconds about how awesomely beautiful the whole place is, then asks nervously if he could come inside and look around. “Of course,” says the obliging mob man. The camera cuts to the exterior of the warehouse and we hear two gunshots. This is a movie, after all, where half the scenes include characters whistling at each other, and the other half include some kind of murder. 

For all its brutality, the characters are never investigated well enough to make us actually fear for their lives, and at the same time, there’s enough credibility left in the action to keep the audience from ever breaking out into a laugh. The actors travail through sex, betrayal, shoot-outs and interrogations in the same glossy, mechanical manner, with care for the psychology of their characters only insofar as the plot demands motives. The result of this story meandering between the absurd and the crucial is a confusion that keeps anyone watching from actually caring about what’s happening on-screen.    

If “The Whistlers” is too offbeat to be well-balanced, then “Wild Goose Lake” is a movie that’s as dedicated to its atmosphere as a jiu-jitsu fighter is to his exercise regimen. Zenong Zhou (Ge Hu) is a midlevel gangster who likes to jack motorbikes, speak in a husky voice and get in violent fights. He and other members of his crew are at a covert criminal convention held in order to peacefully divide up turf when matters turn less peaceful, and a rival gang leader is shot in the leg. Hot with rage, that wounded gang leader blames Zhou and his allies, and by the earliest hours of the morning Zenong is on the run, pursued not just by his fellow criminals but by police as well.

“Wild Goose Lake” enjoys its moments of showy, over-the-top brutality, but prefers to surround those scenes with slow sequences of mounting tension, quiet to the point of wordless. These sequences, sometimes too long, create a sense of underlying dread for the viewer about this tough mouse being chased by too many cats. 

However, the slowness also has an atmospheric effect. By contrasting quick chaotic violence with steady build-up, by taking his action outdoors to watery nights and by setting his film around the titular Wild Goose Lake, a sub-roseate world of covert prostitutes, worn-out apartments and general lawlessness, director Yinan Diao creates a noirish counterpart to the goofy “Whistlers,” a humorless thriller where glares can kill and in the meantime characters are just trying to survive their lives of crushing poverty and rain. Instead of sophisticated murderers and sexy courtesans, there’s an unmistakable lower class feeling about “Wild Goose Lake.” It’s grittier and more realistic when characters do bad things not to make it big but just to make it at all.