Over the course of his first three features — “Ilo Ilo,” “Wet Season” and this year’s “Drift” — Singaporean directorhas developed a signature style. It is a graceful, lucid classicism, a mode that in its straightforward sincerity is not fashionable in our abrasive moment, but can yield significant satisfactions. That is certainly true of his second film of 2023, “ ,” which describes, in a trio of perfectly judged performances, the burgeoning, momentous and yet fleeting connection between three differently lonely people — a love triangle with rounded, snowdrift corners.
Yu Jing-Pin’s lovely photography contrasts wintry wides and warm close-ups, as writer-director Chen carves out three characters against the frozen landscapes of Yanji, a small Chinese town in shouting distance of the North Korean border. This is the current home of Nana (Zhou Dongyu, “Better Days”) an unfulfilled bus-tour guide who switches on her ready smile for her passengers — and switches it off just as quickly when she turns away to massage her cold, cramping feet.
Nana ends her tours in a Korean restaurant (Yanji has an ethnic Korean enclave) which is run by the family of Xiao (Qu Chuxiao, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”) a similarly restless local with whom Nana has an on-off flirtation. One day, depressive city guy Haofeng (Lui Haoran, reuniting with Zhou after the excellent “Fire on the Plain”), in town as a solitary wedding guest, decides to join Nana’s tour. She jokes with him cheerfully on the bus, but also gives him a glimpse of her switched-off persona, and it creates a spark of fellowship.
The spark catches when Nana invites Haofeng out for a beer after he loses his phone — which is one way he can avoid answering the many impatient calls from his mental health facility back home. If Xiao is initially annoyed by this fifth wheel rolling into his maybe-date with Nana, it soon dissipates, as the young men also forge an uncomplicated bond. Ice duly broken, the three go on trips into the stunning wilds of nearby Changbai Mountain, and on youthful, “Jules et Jim”-inspired sprees, like a shoplifting contest in a local bookstore. They drink, chat idly and hang out in different permutations. Xiao picks out a love song on a guitar — like the film, and like Kin Leonn’s variegated, music box-inflected score, it plays out in a sweetly melancholy minor key.
Some of the flourishes — Nana’s backstory as a once-promising skater, Haofeng’s habit of loudly crunching ice cubes, a trip to the border that their voices can cross but they cannot — are a little cumbersome as motifs. But the restraint of all three players pulls such moments back from obviousness, with Zhou in particular once again somehow finding radiance in sullenness, giving Nana an inner life that breaks through her layers of defensive truculence like occasional sun through snowclouds.
Stories about decent people muddling through by virtue of mutual, hesitant connection are not exactly in short supply in indie cinema, but they are somewhat rarer in a Chinese context. But then, despite the specificity of its location and the distinctive regional landscapes, Chen’s film could be set in Trieste or Timbuktu or a Texas border town — anywhere people, especially young people, find comfort in their shared marginalization, and experience the paradox that is having nothing to do and the perfect companions to do it with.
Even the most obvious potential conflict — when Haofeng sleeps with Nana and Xiao discovers it the next day — is charmingly underplayed, as Xiao reacts with disappointment rather than rancor. There is a strangely calm acceptance, wise beyond any of their years, that here, at the frozen edge of a nation with only a forbiddingly isolationist neighbor beyond, no one can be judged on whom they huddle up with for warmth. It is too cold to waste precious heat stoking petty resentments.
For Xiao and Nana, that Haofeng might choose to stay here, in a place they’re both longing to escape, is obscurely emboldening. Haofeng evidently has other options (his moneyed background is hinted at in his financier job and the expensive wristwatch that stops working soon after his arrival), but he finds his despair leavened by these two locals, who are at ease in this out-of-the-way place even if part of that familiarity is contempt, making room for him in their lives. It might only be for a short time. “The Breaking Ice” is sentimental, but it doesn’t betray the essential fragility of these friendships by making them more than they are. Rather, this poignant, poised little story pivots on the deeper discovery that often, it is by involving ourselves in the healing of others, that we come to be healed ourselves, and on the sadder realization that even if connection makes life livable, the living must ultimately be done alone.