The Cold Flame (Feng Huo)

Bottom Line: A somber but fresh take on the mainland Chinese war drama.

Shanghai International Film Festival

SHANGHAI -- An act of childish spitefulness can have life-and-death consequences in times of extreme duress. Louis Malle has developed this theme to devastating effect in "Au revoir les enfants" (1987). "The Cold Flame," also set in W.W.II with youngsters as central characters, reveals how wartime life is colored by random acts of cruelty and innate impulses of compassion. Like Malle's masterpiece, casual lies in "The Cold Flame" become the catalyst for a chain of poignant events. The title supposedly implies that the true damage of people's actions cannot be felt until sufficient time has elapsed.

Pitching itself as a "market-friendly" product rather than "festival film," "The Cold Flame" secured a market screening at Cannes and is now in competition for SIFF's Asian New Talent Award. Though local critical response appears positive, the film may receive a warmer welcome overseas, especially European festivals and art house cinemas before being accepted by the average Chinese movie-going public.

The film follows the plight of a 13-year-old girl Jingxuan and her little brother. Orphaned during the war, she seeks refuge in a Northern town, and survives on charity food rations. She becomes besotted with an injured officer while helping out at emergency hospital for wounded soldiers, converted from the local convent. However, the sudden attack of Japanese troops brings a rude interruption to furtive longings and fragile ties.

Wang focuses on the human drama of a few core characters, and offers a fresh perspective unusual in mainland Chinese films of this genre. Wisely avoiding costly battle scenes and party-line patriotism, Wang invests the KMT (Nationalist) soldiers with humane attributes, and the main characters with moral ambiguity. People are shown telling lies to sustain their dignity and fantasies, but sometimes also for self-interest, such as the lies Jingxuan tells her rival, the "Little Widow," or the officer's lie about the woman in the photo he keeps. Food takes on symbolic meaning as its offering or denial turns acts as a measure of the character's humanity, vanity or weakness.

Former fireman Leon Yang Shupeng directs his debut feature with self-assurance. It is well-scripted and visually stunning. Interiors, especially the cavernous church hall and makeshift hospital, are bathed in a somber, red glow, evoking a gothic, unreal ambience. Pacing is a slow build-up, like the lull before a storm, with the powerful climax coming fast and furious.

Alternating flashbacks of combat scenes are shot in a grainy, grayish texture, but the tone and the sudden "Saving Private Ryan"-like sound effects jar with the rest of the film's otherwise controlled aesthetic.

Backlight Image Beijing/Infotainment China Media
Director/writer/production designer/editor: Leon Yang Shupeng
Producer: Amber Wong, Cindy Mi Lin
Director of photography: Ma Weiye
Music: Hou Dudu

Du Jingxuan: Michelle Gong Siyu
Xue Youfang: Zhang Hanyu
Younger brother: Yang Shaoshuai
Little Widow: Feng Yan
Running time -- 93 minutes
No MPAA rating