China’s foreign-language Oscar submission, “Red Cherry,” is an ambitious, if muddled, World War II saga about displaced children tossed into the maelstrom of the conflict who somehow survive the madness. Heartfelt and melodramatic, the film is an old-fashioned, emotionally overwrought tale that may garner some festival exposure on the basis of curiosity rather than any intrinsic artistic qualities. Commercial prospects will be limited outside of specialized engagements.
Director Ye Ying adopts an over-complex narrative structure to convey what is ultimately a simple drama. In 1940, Chuchu (Guo Ke-Yu) and Luo Xiaoman (Xiu Xiao-Li) — orphaned Chinese children — are transported to an international school in Moscow. Victims of revolutionary upheaval, they have a surprisingly easy transition into their new environment.
A year later, Chuchu and her classmates at a summer camp in Belorussia are taken captive by German invaders. Luo, who stayed behind, is evacuated from the school and, unable to join the army, becomes part of a roving street gang.
The film cross-cuts between the two for the remainder of the war. Chuchu becomes an indentured servant to the invaders. She is spared some of the more inhuman aspects of the situation when a commanding officer (Vladmir Nizmiroff) fancies her as the recipient of his tattoo artistry.
Meanwhile, Luo lands a job delivering death notices in a village but finds the task oppressive and instead keeps hope alive with invented correspondence from the dead soldiers.
The horror of war as seen from a child’s naive perspective has been the subject of dozens of earlier and more profound works. Ying and writer Jiang Qitao work from cliche rather than experience, and the result is contrived, tedious and, at times, laughable. Most poorly served are the enemy, an assortment of pitiless gargoyles, especially the one-legged general with a penchant for skin designs extolling the fatherland.
Intended as a testament to the human spirit, “Red Cherry” misfires badly. The two young people may embody heroic elements within their society, but to outsiders their plight has an unsatisfying, dispiriting conclusion. They are victims undone by circumstance. Tech credits are impressive, and the locale and context suggest a more liberal, universal attitude for future Chinese productions. It’s to be hoped that assured hands will hold the reins when the next prime opportunity arises.