"The Day the Sun Turned Cold," a fact-based mystery about a Chinese son who turns his mother in for a 10-year-old murder, is as bleak as its title. It is also psychologically acute, emotionally complex - and completely absorbing.
When a loner workaholic law student, Guan Jian (Tao Chung Wah) tells the police that he thinks his mother, Pu Fengying, (Si Ching Goa Wa) poisoned his father, Guan Shichang (Ma Hing Wu), 10 years ago, he is met with skepticism.
"Why do you hate your mother?" Captain Chen (Li Hu) asks.
Jian replies that he does not hate her, that she is a good woman. But this invokes a story from Jian that illustrates the Chinese proverb that if you cut down a tree you can make a club, but if you bear a son you will reap resentment.
The movie flashes back to Jian's childhood, with his parents' loveless marriage, his father's stern ways and a love affair between his mother and a local woodcutter, Liu Dagui (We L'Azi), who saved the mother and son's lives in a blizzard.
Hong Kong-based writer-director Yim Ho cuts between the present with Chen's investigation and Jian's story, and shows that Jian is driven not only by resentment but by guilt. The revelations build to one shattering emotional climax after another. By the time Jian realizes that the impact of his revenge is more than he counted on, it's too late.
Director Yim uses the snow and cold like a film noir director uses rain, and the frozen, barren landscape of the Chinese countryside is an apt metaphor for Jian's heart. The budget limitations show, however, with some scenes that seem more badly lit than purposefully gloomy.
The translation for the subtitles is clumsy at times, and there is one dramatic typo at a crucial moment. "Daddy is dying!" shows up as "Daddy is lying!"
The acting is uniformly fine, particularly the arm's-length dynamic between Jian and Fengying. Si Ching Goa Wa is heartbreaking as she radiates with joy as her son returns to the village only to find out why he is there.
The setting in rural "modern" China is vivid, illustrating that Communist China in 1980 was behind rural America in 1880 in many respects. Another interesting point is that the sentence for murder is "death and the loss of political rights." (Emphasis mine.)
"The Day the Sun Turned Cold" is undeniably a fine film, but it is also a consistent downer. The actors deliver fine portraits of family members killing each other emotionally (and perhaps physically), and the script is intelligent and involving. But if you're seeking a "feel good" movie, you should look elsewhere.