An intimate drama focusing on a touching friendship between a wounded Nationalist Chinese (KMT) officer and a teenage orphan during the latter stages of the Sino-Japanese War, “The Cold Flame” reps a fresh take on an established Chinese genre by self-trained, first-time writer-director Leon Yang. Strong lead perfs, especially by young Michelle Gong, and an accessible style that puts its characters first, equip this pic for some offshore exposure, though not in fests that cater to the artier extremes of new Mainland filmmaking.
Majority of the story is framed as a flashback to just after the official end of the war, in November 1945, as a lieutenant in his mid-30s, Xue Youfang (Zhang Hanyu) receives a letter written him by young Du Jingxuan (Gong). Two had met during the final months of the conflict when Xue was wounded in battle — shown in cold, grainy colors — and Du was helping out at a church-cum-hospital run by a French nun, Sister Maria (Lucile Gingember).
Characters emerge and the story becomes clear as Xue slowly recovers. Though never specified, the setting is an old walled town somewhere in wintry northern China, judging by the food, inclement weather and hard winter light (nicely contrasted by veteran d.p. Ma Weiye with more richly colored interiors). Du, 15, is originally from the south, and, in addition to caring for Xue, has to deal with her pesky young brother, Jingwen (Yang Shaoshuai).
Also on hand is a young widow, Xiulan (Feng Yan), whom Du tries to set up with the convalescent soldier. But the real emotional tie is between Xue and Du herself, with the confident teen fabricating a story — which Xue knows to be untrue — that her father is still alive and involved in the anti-Japanese struggle.
Chemistry between Gong and Zhang is strong, with the younger actress holding her own against the older cast members. She fully inhabits a role that calls for her to appear unfazed by both her surroundings and her family loss, as well as deal with complex emotions toward Xue, who is both a replacement father figure and a platonic suitor. Playing a young woman on the cusp of marriageable age, Gong navigates from pertness to bravado to inner sadness with considerable skill.
As Xue is finally forced to move on, and retreating Japanese troops enter the city, the yarn enters its tragic final stages, with a poignant coda.
Working on a tight budget, Yang, already in his 30s, directs with considerable assurance, free of film-school tics. Helmer makes positive use of studio sets (the whole film was shot at the army-owned August First Studio) and breaks the mold of WWII dramas by featuring KMT soldiers in a positive, humanist light sans any political point-scoring.
Music, notably in the early combat flashbacks, is overstated, but other tech work is just fine, with discreetly saturated color (as in Du’s vivid red scarf) pointing up the story’s underlying emotional warmth. Chinese title literally means “Beacon Fire” or, more broadly, “The Flames of War.”