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Ocean Flame
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Ocean Flame

Liu Fan and Monica Mok feel the Ocean Flame.
Chinese: 一半海水,一半火燄
Year: 2008
Director: Liu Fendou
Producer: Simon Yam Tat-Wah
Writer: Liu Fendou, Bobo Au
Cast: Liao Fan, Monica Mok, Hai Yitian, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Lam Suet, Leung Ka-Yan, Guk Fung, Sukie Shek, Bau Hei-Jing, Him Law, Hui Siu-Hung, Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung, Lawrence Cheng Tan-Shui, Ha Da, Zhou Chuchu, Xiao Bao
The Skinny: Ocean Flame seems designed for international film fest consumption, and features beautiful visuals, overwrought emotions, and decidedly artistic intentions. It also seems to think it's better than it really is. A decent, if not entirely successful effort at award-winning film, and overall a rather strange Hong Kong movie.
by Kozo:
Directed by Liu Fendou, Ocean Flame is an arty and erotic drama that should be welcome at many an international film festival - though it's actually quite strange for a Hong Kong release. The film opens in the present, with just-released ex-con Wang Yao (Liao Fan) visiting a local crime boss to obtain a gun. He takes his firearm and barges in on a frightened family, but before he can pop off a couple of rounds, the film flashes back to the time before his incarceration, revealing how he ended up in his current vengeful state. Previously, Wang Yao was a charismatic, preening pimp running a small prostitution ring with a group of friends. Their methods are simple and effective: the girl brings the customer to a room in a classy hotel, and in the middle of their tryst, Wang Yao busts in. He pretends to be the girl's husband, behaves simultaneously cool and menacing, spouts some kick-ass dialogue, and then shakes down the customer for plenty of extra dough. His team is successful at the gig, and despite the objections of other shady characters, the money flows in.

All that changes, however, when Wang Yao meets the attractive Li Chuan (Monica Mok), a waitress at a Tsimshatsui bar/restaurant who he comes to know romantically, and then sexually. Unfortunately, Li Chuan didn't get the memo on her badass boyfriend, and only later realizes his occupation, as well as the depth of his darkness. Wang Yao is controlling and cruel - if not actually insane - and inspires both fear and affection from his friends and partners. After some emotional abuse plus some well-photographed trysts on the beach, Wang Yao introduces Li Chuan into his sordid world, sinking his hooks deeper into her emotions, while also adding her to his team of prostitutes in a misguided attempt to keep her near him. But Li Chuan is unlike the girls Wang Yao has known before, as she remains willful despite falling prey to his corruption. The two struggle with their love/hate/self-flagellation while the cops, led by a silent Simon Yam, begin to close in. However, the cops won't have to do much. Though there is real affection and even camaraderie between Wang Yao and his team, his dark and controlling nature ultimately drives them towards self-destruction.

Ocean Flame could win the award for "Oddest Local Film of 2008", simply because it's so unlike a Hong Kong movie. Based on a novel by Wang Shuo, Ocean Flame is produced by Simon Yam, is Hong Kong-funded, and takes place firmly in the territory. Yet, it features a Mainland director, a non-local principal cast, and a very Mainland feel. The icing on the cake is the small army of Hong Kong character actors, who appear in small roles only to speak Cantonese while the rest of the cast speaks back in Mandarin. Consistent, believable reality is hard to find here, and the performances, script, and filmmaking style further that sense of artificiality. Ocean Flame is a decent try at an art film, attempting meaning through pretentious technique, dark characters, and emotions that could charitably be called alienating. This is a portrait of people who destroy themselves due to pride, delusion, disaffection, and a frustrating lack of communication. Those seeking positive and soul-enriching experiences at the cinema had best steer clear of Ocean Flame, because they'll get burned, badly.

Still, Ocean Flame will likely please some arthouse audiences due to its deliberately dark emotions and its excellent craft. Liu Fendou balances his elements capably, offsetting his unhappy themes and characters with black comedy, quirky details and languid, portentous staging. Also, the production is an undeniably attractive one. The filmmakers portray Hong Kong beautifully, finding much to admire in its blue skies, spartan beaches, and weathered architecture. The excellent composition and eye-catching cinematography make this a visual treat, and the performances are worth noting. Lead Liao Fan may not be traditionally handsome, but he possesses a certain dangerous charisma. The frequently-naked Monica Mok turns in a daring debut performance, and Hai Yitian is effective as Wang Yao's loyal friend and partner Zheng Zhong. The long pauses, overwrought emotions, and smart dialogue mark Ocean Flame as decent fodder for international arthouse consumption, as the film pointedly straddles the line between artful intention and festival-baiting commercial elements. It's clear what story and what emotions Liu Fendou is trying to convey, and he does so like a self-anointed art film auteur.

Ocean Flame seems conceived for audiences in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, and any other place where Asian Cinema can be considered a genre. While not categorically a flaw, that transparent intent seemingly makes the film less successful than it could have been. There's stuff worth admiring in Ocean Flame; aside from visuals, the filmmakers' effort is worth some notice. However, their pretensions are so apparent that the film simply becomes too deliberate. Each shot or scene is exactingly arranged, and some of the dialogue is glaringly overwritten. There's a certain wit and flair to the screenplay, but the film lacks the life or spontaneity to sell that intelligence or hipness as anything but manufactured. Even the charged emotions appear more staged than felt. Also, the frequent cameos by Hong Kong actors are distracting, and start to feel unnecessary and even pandering. As interesting and unusual as Ocean Flame is for a Hong Kong film, it never really convinces as anything other than an obvious and labored attempt at making Award-Winning Film™. Those intentions are worthy of appreciation, but the film itself? Not so much. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival, 2008)

Notes: • This review is based on the 98-minute cut of the film that premiered at the 2008 Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival. A previous 136-minute cut showed at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
Ocean Flame is the third big-screen adaptation of Wang Shuo's original novel. The other two were a Mainland adaptation and the 2001 U.S. film Love the Hard Way, starring Adrien Brody.
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Universe Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
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image credit: Hong Kong International Film Festival Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen