Ranking among the iconic images of international cinema is the euphoric sprint across the footbridge in Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Shot straight-on using a handheld camera that trembles in tune with their every stride, the moment captured the dynamic between Jules, Jim, and Katherine and sang the spontaneous spirit of the Nouvelle Vague. Singapore filmmaker Anthony Chen cites Truffaut as inspiration for his own love triangle, The Breaking Ice. Contrary to Truffaut, the lingering image from Chen’s film is not the trio in harmony, but separated, wandering through a maze of ice, narrowly missing one another, until the camera, a gliding, ghostly observer, retreats to a precipitous high angle.
The Breaking Ice departs dramatically from Chen’s previous work: domestic dramas governed by restraint. If you ever heard music, it was under rare circumstances and over a car radio; whereas here, Chen soaks the nocturnal adventures in subjective dreampop. Hoafeng, Nana, and Xiao stand at the precipice of adulthood, leading unfulfilling, glacially paced lives, gripped by suicidal impulses and existential despair. Chen’s uncharacteristically vibrant cinematography – psychedelic displays at shopping malls, red strobe effects in nightclubs – only further illuminates their private emptiness. The plight of a North Korean fugitive resonates with the trio, in whom they vicariously share the struggle for freedom against an escalating manhunt. As expected, ice proves a prominent motif, from chainsaw-wielding sculptors to Nana’s past life as a figure skater to a frozen lake splintering beneath their competing feet. Together with sublime encounters involving wildlife, there are cues toward metamorphosis, a transcendence that these souls must initiate individually.