Friday, November 02, 2018

In Harm’s Way: Bille August’s Co-Pro

During WWII, strong ties were forged between America and the Chinese people, thanks to the Flying Tigers, the Yankee volunteer pilots serving with the Chinese Air Force. Jack Turner is not one of them, but he is still pretty close. The Army Air pilot will complete a spectacular bombing run over Tokyo, but he crashes over Zhejiang shortly thereafter. Fortunately, a beautiful war widow and her little daughter will provide Turner shelter at great risk to themselves in Bille August’s Chinese co-production, In Harm’s Way (a.k.a. The Chinese Widow, a.k.a. The Hidden Soldier, trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Life is a struggle for Ying, but she still dutifully supports her in-laws with the proceeds of her traditional silk-making. Unfortunately, her daughter Nunu still allows grief and anger to distract her from her school work. One day while collecting silk worms, they chance across the badly injured Turner. With the encouragement of the village headman, her husband’s boyhood friend Kai, Ying hides the pilot in her secret cellar. Not long after, the sadist Captain Shimamoto kills Kai to teach the village a lesson. It certainly clarifies the stakes for Ying—and even more so for the pouty Nunu.

Despite the language barrier, Ying and Turner quickly fall in love. He also starts to win over Nunu, which is no small feat. Fortunately, their rapport is fast and furious, because nasty old Shimamoto senses something suspicious about Ying.

August and screenwriter Greg Latter checked all the requisite boxes of a Chinese WWII movie. The Nationalists are cowardly bumblers, the Communist guerillas are the real patriots, and the Japanese are monsters from Hell. Granted, the sympathetic American is a bit of a new wrinkle, but he is really just a vehicle to establish Ying’s self-sacrificing heroism. Still, as Ying and Turner, Crystal Liu Yifei and Emile Hirsch have much stronger chemistry than the uniformly poor notices have indicated. However, the best thing going for the film is young Li Fangcong’s remarkable performance as Nunu.

The cast is not the problem here. It is Latter’s utterly predictable script, which follows a straight, orderly line, with absolutely no deviations, detours, reversals of fortune, or anything else that might build suspense. Frankly, August does next to nothing to wring tension out of Turner’s potential discovery. Even the climatic action sequence looks problematically small in scale.

Arguably, In Harm’s Way would be a pretty good TV movie, but it just doesn’t have theatrical chops. There are definitely propaganda elements, but some critics have been especially hard on it, ever since it awkwardly replaced Ann Hui’s universally hailed Our Time Will Come as the opening film of the Shanghai International Film Festival—a move widely considered to have been orchestrated by Beijing to favor August’s Party-line-towing film over Hui’s morally complex tale of intrigue involving the Hong Kong resistance.

That is not entirely fair to IHW, but Hui’s film is undeniably superior, according any rational standard. There are some nice moments here and there, but mostly IHW is just okay, which makes it a disappointment. Lukewarm and well-behaved, In Harm’s Way does not inspire much of a recommendation either way when it opens today (11/2) in LA, at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.