Saturday 6 September 2008

TIFF 2008 - Ocean Flame

You know those friends of yours that keep breaking up and getting back together? Everybody says they have a "dysfunctional" relationship? Well, they're Ozzie and Harriet in comparison to the characters Wang Yao and Li Chuan in Liu Fendou's "Ocean Flame" - a document of a fierce love/hate between two people that devolves occasionally into almost sado-masochistic tendencies and eventually consumes them both. How's that for an elevator pitch?

Wang Yao is a criminal - he and his partners pull blackmail scams on the clients of his own prostitutes. But he is a bit different than your regular small time hood. As he says to one of his rivals "You are in it to make a living. I am in it because I like it". He's nothing if not honest about his intentions. And though he wouldn't be the first thug to quote the survival of the fittest, it's not often you actually hear one of them name-check The Beagle and mention that they are in fact a Darwinist.

Li Chuan, for her part, is a simple, somewhat demure waitress. She helps Wang Yao after he gets beaten up in her cafe and they fall in love almost immediately. She doesn't seem to mind that he tells her he isn't a nice guy and that he doesn't hide any of the bad things in which he's involved. As time goes on, he begins to get her more and more involved in those same bad things until she too has become one of the prostitutes. Yet she just cannot leave him. He even tells her "You can't change me and you'll ruin yourself trying".

The film builds the relationship slowly enough that you actually believe some of the more intense things that happen between them. Both performances are very strong and incredibly passionate. If the mood of the story occasionally borders on melodramatic that's OK - it never slips into the sappy overly contrived emotions of the worst kind of melodrama, but manages to pick up some of its best characteristics. Of course, this doesn't mean that it isn't still hard to watch sometimes...Li Chuan is humiliated, slapped and otherwise debased time and time again. It's obvious she should run far away from this guy. But it just isn't possible for her at this stage. Nor is it for him to let her go.

Liu stretches out some of these scenes and uses silence (both in natural surroundings as well as with a lack of music) to effectively bring all the focus to the two main characters. There's also some lovely camera work throughout the film and it captures some gorgeous shots of the buildings in which they live and work as well as the ocean and beach to which they escape. When Li Chuan finally tells Wang Yao that she will get her revenge, there has been enough foreshadowing of events (via the initial scene before the long flashback, the dialog between them and also the use of colour) that we don't doubt it - but we just aren't sure how it will play out. We do know that obsession rarely leads to happy endings though.

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