Sophie Monks Kaufman


The Breaking Ice – first-look review

Three young adults navigate the intricacies of romance in a snowy city in Northern China in Anthony Chen's latest drama.

Singaporean director, Anthony Chen, is known for human dramas that pull off their modest narrative ambitions with heart-on-sleeve sincerity. His pandemic project, The Breaking Ice, is loyal to its title in every way. It contains different iterations of ice literally breaking (a character chomping on ice cubes, hacking up ice blocks with tools, and ice-skating) as well as the eventual catharsis of its metaphorical meaning as frozen hearts thaw out by the fire of brief-yet-meaningful friendship.

In the limbo land of Yanji, a wintry Chinese city that borders on Korea with a large Korean population, three twenty somethings with different demons are on hiatuses from their lives. Haofeng (Liu Haoran), is an introverted financier from Shanghai who fantasises about suicide. He has come to Yanji for a wedding. Nana (Zhou Dongyu) is a charming but preoccupied tour guide who ushers Haofeng under her wing after he loses his phone on one of her tours. Xiao (Qu Chuxiao) is a local restaurant worker with a crush on Nana. He shows Herculean restraint when a strange third wheel, Haofeng, is invited on a night out.

This night out proves to be very boozy, culminating in the usually cringy after-hours classic – somebody pulling out a guitar – that, in this case, leads to an emotional reprieve. Haofeng oversleeps the next morning, missing his flight home. Nana suggests that he make a virtue of this snafu and invites him to stay with her for the next few days.

Chen uses this contained time period to map out naturalistically paced bonding with profound implications for each member of the trio, using the edge-of-the-world remoteness of Yanji as a dreamy icescape in which fallen people can refind their footing. Reward posters and news footage regularly report on a fugitive from Korea who had taken to shoplifting to survive. He is an apocryphal presence, adding external stakes that never come into focus.

As their boundaries gently melt away, Nana and Haofeng enjoy sweet sexual healing, to a stoical response from Xiao. The film comes into its own when Chen leans into the juiciest potential of its ambiguous threeway dynamic. This is Jules et Jim for the seasonally depressed, full of emotional nooks and crannies that are excavated as the three actors let the push and pull between what is communicable and what must be suffered alone flicker across their faces.

Zhou Dongyu as Nana is the MVP, layering her performance so that the cheerful mistress-of-ceremonies front abruptly runs out and she lapses into brooding. Even in this state, she is animated by a lively physical intelligence that expresses itself in caring gestures. For the most part, she rebuffs XIao with scathing wit, yet there comes a moment where she creates a new genre of kiss: one that says “I’m sorry this doesn’t mean something else.”

With Haofeng, as he showers, she traces the line of his body through the curtain until their hands are touching through the fabric. This is goodbye.

Published 22 May 2023

Tags: Anthony Chen

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