The Weekend Watch: The Breaking Ice

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The Weekend Watch: The Breaking Ice

Welcome to The Weekend Watch, a weekly column focusing on a movie—new, old or somewhere in between, but out either in theaters or on a streaming service near you—worth catching on a cozy Friday night or a lazy Sunday morning. Comments welcome!

When deciding what to time this week’s Weekend Watch to, I had a couple options. There was the beginning of the Cannes Film Festival, and there was the domination of Challengers’ horny trio in the hearts and minds of popular audiences. I figured, why not hit both at the same time? How about a movie that both played in the Un Certain Regard section in 2023 and features a tense, complicated ménage à trois? If that sounds good to you, and you want a quiet film that has an intimate understanding of isolation and the sadness it brings, venture to the frigid Chinese tourist town in The Breaking Ice, now streaming on Criterion Channel.

Writer/director Anthony Chen made his English-language debut with last year’s Drift, which played Sundance a few months before The Breaking Ice hit Cannes. Both films involve tour guides and unlikely friendships, the former dealing with an American and a Liberian in Greece, the latter with a Chinese trio in Yanji, a border town with North Korea. Characters are geographically and culturally adrift, finding stability in one another.

The Breaking Ice sees its chain-smoking guide Nana (Zhou Dongyu) pick up a stray from her tour of local authentic Korean cultural sites: the stranded and depressed city boy Haofeng (Liu Haoran), who lost his phone after attending his friend’s wedding. The burned-out Nana takes Haofeng into her world, where she reconnects with her old pal (and implied ex-flame) Xiao (Qu Chuxiao) and drinks her troubles away.

The group’s shared ennui dribbles out of Haofeng’s longing looks over the sides of railings, down to the hard ground below. Look how the snow falls, falls, lands. Softly, quietly. It’s alluring. The Breaking Ice is a stark film, even when it moves from the unrelenting winter landscapes to the town’s cozy, thrumming club scene. Haofeng’s sadness is centered, tears falling freely and ice cubes returning as a jarring, crunching motif that brings him back to reality. But Nana, quick to cover her literal scars, and Xiao, laughing off his blue-collar position with barely suppressed bitterness, add Haofeng to their revelry for a reason. Their relationship—whatever it may be now, evolved from whatever it once was—has grown stale. A new perspective (especially a finance guy from the other side of the tracks like Haofeng) wakes you up like a shot of soju.

And there’s lots of drinking in The Breaking Ice, which makes the trio’s rowdy, fluid sexual tension all the fuzzier. The cast dances together and listens to Qu Chuxiao play a tipsy acoustic ditty and stumbles in the door only to pound a few more green bottles of Chamisul—all while bumping into one another, grabbing onto shoulders and around waists, and curling up in a pile to stave off the cold. There’s such intimacy, especially in a particularly well-shot ice cube scene, that (much like Challengers) sex is almost besides the point. If tennis captures the psychosexual power jockeying that can dominate relationships, the rambling, boozy, red-faced and weepy antics of these three embody how repression can spill over when you make connections with the similarly afflicted.

The cycle of aloneness and togetherness plays out over and again, changing locations and taking on greater thematic meaning over the course of the film, but always coming back to the predictable pattern. How the characters feel about breaking the cycle provides their intertwined arcs. A trip through an ice-block hedge maze, like a disaffected riff on The Shining‘s final scene, provides one of the film’s more beautiful visualizations of its characters’ emotions. Chen’s understanding of depression is an icicle to the heart, but his understanding of being part of a Horny Going Out Group is warm, sweet and a little embarrassing. If you ever weathered a weird look or an awkward amount of physicality with someone you used to sleep with (or shared one drunken encounter nobody ever speaks of), The Breaking Ice will come up to you after one drink too many and whisper something it regrets in your ear.

The Breaking Ice holds itself back a bit by overplaying some of its larger themes, and introducing a few heavy-handed symbols that detract from its well-played people. But when you’re running through the frigid Yanji streets, caught between languages and cultures, and at one of those crossroads that always seem to come up for bummed-out twentysomethings, The Breaking Ice skates by on Chen’s crisp observations.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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