Fantastic Fest Review: Cold Steel

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Cold Steel

It occurred to me halfway through Cold Steel (Bian di lang yan) that Fantastic Fest has no icon for "romance." There's "comedy" and even "date movie," which seems relegated only to ironic situations, but no "romance." I'm sure that's because some festivalgoers get that same squeamish feeling seeing "romance" next to a film that I get seeing "pet abuse." But David Wu's new feature is, in many ways, a very romantic film, from the actual love story between the war-torn main characters to the rich cinematography. As a man better known among the Fantastic Fest crowd for his association with hardcore action movies such as Bullet in the Head and A Better Tomorrow, his new film has a softer feel even amongst the sniper violence.

Set in China during World War II, Cold Steel focuses on the Japanese takeover of the country, and an elite sniper team tasked with blunting Japan's conquest. Young hero Wu Liangfeng (Peter Ho) is forced to join the team after his rebellion against an officer gets him in hot water (yes, there's a tea theme in the movie). He's already a very skilled sniper, learning from his hunting experience, as well as his tutelage from an American solider that literally fell from the sky. Wu's first mission becomes chaotic, setting off his personal journey towards love and brotherhood, as well as the horrors of war.

I promise the film is not as sappy as it sounds, although it is surprisingly straightforward for a Fantastic Fest film. Action and war-movie lovers will enjoy the gun-obsession and sniper fights, while people of the XX Team persuasion will enjoy the parallel stories of two women so integral to the decisions men make during war.

Cold Steel is technically well made, both beautifully shot and nicely paced. Action sequences are a satisfying combination of suspense and testosterone-inducing even for the ladies. The true strength of the movie, however, is in the numerous relationships built and mended throughout the film. So much so that scenes depicting the larger madness and mayhem of war can feel out of place. Even with this hiccup, the film comes to a fulfilling conclusion, albeit one that doesn't necessitate multiple viewings.

Some audience members may find the repeated use of metaphors and similes, and homages to Western culture a bit overdone. When you hear, "Say hello to my little friend" or "Bullets are like savings, spend them wisely," it might feel as if the film has jumped the shark. But, to Wu's credit, both tropes are used wisely. The very Western phrases are comedic moments for the audience, while the similes are our young hero's tools on his road to maturity.

I will say, Cold Steel delivered what is probably my new favorite romantic movie line. When realizing that his love, Lin Yan, is using her vegetable cooking as a metaphor for her feelings of being pushed aside, Wu tells her, "You need to know that you are not a side dish."