An elaborate tear-jerker set against the backdrop of the Japanese atrocities in Nanking, The Flowers of War aims at bringing Chinese and Western film audiences closer together through an unsettling mixture of spectacular brutality and sentimentality that might make even Steven Spielberg blush.
Estimated to be the most expensive movie ever made in China, the $100-million (U.S.) film stars Christian Bale under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early career includes vivid art films ( Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) and, more recently, a mixture of low-budget, neo-realistic stories ( The Story of Qiu Ju, Not One Less) and CGI-heavy legend movies such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, designed to provide Chinese audiences with an alternative to Hollywood blockbusters.
The subject here is a historical trauma within living memory, the Nanking assault of 1937-1938, where, in the weeks following the fall of the capital, the Japanese army was responsible for the deaths of 200,000 to 300,000 civilians and the mass rape of tens of thousands. Accounts of the Nanking massacre have been treated much more profoundly elsewhere, most recently in Lu Chuan’s 2009 film, City of Life and Death.
That essentially makes The Flowers of War of interest as a cross-cultural curiosity. In adapting Yan Geling’s novel, 13 Flowers of Nanjing, screenwriter Liu Heng has kept the voice-over structure told from the perspective of one convent girl (Zhang Xinyi), but adds a conversion story, of a cynical American who becomes noble in the face of adversity.
In the opening scene, John Miller (Christian Bale) dodges through Nanking’s war-torn rubble until he reaches a Roman Catholic cathedral where he finds a 12-year-old boy, George (Huang Tianyuan), attempting to protect a dozen convent school girls.
Miller promptly pilfers the communion wine, takes the late priest’s bed and settles in. Shortly after, when a group of 13 prostitutes from a floating brothel on the nearby Yangtze River scale the walls of the church’s courtyard seeking refuge, he thinks he’s found his own harem.
The cynical American character is a composite of familiar types – Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca with a dash of Harrison Ford from the Indiana Jones movies – but his redemption is hard to buy. He seems far too roguish and twinkling in the early scenes, considering the catastrophe around him.
Initially, he’s spurred on to heroism by the promise of sexual favours from the most elegant of the prostitutes, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), if he can get the women out of the city.
Later, in an effort to save the girls from Japanese troops who overrun the cathedral, he dons a priest’s garb as a symbolic shield, though the reprieve is short-lived.
When a deceitful Japanese officer (Atsuro Watabe) insists that the school girls come to sing at a Japanese officer’s party, everyone understands they will be raped and murdered. That forces the collective refugees in the cathedral to come up with a new stratagem.
As emotionally contrived and implausible as it is, the ending might work if other elements of The Flowers of War were more coherent. The film features a few journeys into the grey rubble of the destroyed city, including a subplot about a heroic Chinese sniper (Tong Dawei ), allowing for a few overchoreographed, crowd-pleasing action scenes.
But most of the story takes place inside the walls of the cathedral, making this like a stage play with bad dialogue. While Bale speaks in an anachronistically modern American vernacular, the Chinese cast recite grammatically perfect, phonetic English so stilted you find yourself wishing the film would stick to subtitles. This is not so much a question of a story being lost in translation as a movie that never finds the right story to tell.
The Flowers of War
- Directed by Zhang Yimou
- Written by Liu Heng
- Starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni and Huang Tianyuan
- Classification: 18A
- 2 stars