THE FLOWERS OF WAR Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Arguably the most eagerly-anticipated Chinese movie of the year, Zhang Yimou's epic retelling of the 1937 Nanking Massacre is not only the country's most expensive movie ever, but boasts Academy Award winner Christian Bale in the lead role. Bale plays John Miller, an American mortician who is summoned to a Cathedral in Nanking to help bury the deceased priest, only to take his place and help defend the young female students, as well as a troupe of prostitutes, from the invading Japanese forces. 

THE FLOWERS OF WAR is a big movie in every sense of the word, from its kinetic battle scenes to the beautiful photography and impressive performances from a mostly young and inexperienced cast. Any new project from Zhang Yimou is a big deal. He is China's most internationally-renowned filmmaker, praised for both for his bold visual style in films such as HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, but also for his earlier, more character-driven films, like JU DOU and RAISE THE RED LANTERN, which detail the plights of young women in oppressive, male-centric societies. 

While many of these themes reappear in THE FLOWERS OF WAR, there is no escaping this is primarily a story about one of the most notorious and enduringly sensitive incidents in recent Chinese history, which has put serious strain on the relationship between China and Japan to this day. What is disappointing is that THE FLOWERS OF WAR takes a very simplistic, heavy-handed approach to history and seems content to demonize the Japanese soldiers without ever attempting to justify or even question their behaviour. 

The only Japanese character displaying any notion of decency is Colonel Hasegawa (Watabe Atsuro), a man so well educated, disciplined and versed in Western culture that he is barely acknowledged as being Japanese - and is obviously rendered completely powerless the moment he shows a glimmer of compassion for the women Miller has sworn to protect. This approach is especially disappointing in the wake of a film like Lu Chuan's CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH, which goes to great lengths to humanize those who took part in the massacre, to examine the impossible choices made by Japanese infantrymen during the invasion, without ever excusing what took place.  

In the film, Bale's character is seduced by Yu Mo (Ni Ni), a prostitute looking for a way out of the city. She has been elected by her colleagues, as the most attractive and seductive, to use her charms on the Westerner so that they may find their freedom. In some ways, THE FLOWERS OF WAR is attempting to do the same thing. It is oftentimes a very entertaining film, in the same way as SCHINDLER'S LIST or BLACK HAWK DOWN can be considered so. Although it is not always a happy experience to watch - indeed there are several moments of distressing violence and savagery - it is an extremely effective and accomplished piece of filmmaking. The action, cinematography and acting are all up to Hollywood standards and edited together with a sweeping, melodramatic style that will prove very effective on audiences, and could steer them wide of having a wider, more balanced perspective on what took place. 

The inclusion of Hollywood A-lister Bale is certainly a bonus, and his presence ensures that at least half of the film is in English. Combine his star power with a supporting cast of beautiful and exotic women, in a thrilling and highly emotional story of life and death during one of the twentieth century's most infamous occurences of mass-slaughter and the film's backers are almost guaranteed a sizable crossover hit. The problem is that Zhang's approach is completely one-sided and even exploitative, in its depiction of the rape, murder and victimisation of Chinese people at the hands of their aggressors.

On the surface THE FLOWERS OF WAR is a story of redemption. Miller arrives on the scene as a chancer and a drunkard, looking to swipe some cash from the cathedral and get out of Nanking as quickly as he can. But when faced with the horrors of the Japanese invasion, and seemingly the only beacon of hope for a group of innocent schoolgirls and "fallen women" he eventually finds his true calling and, in doing so, also "saves" himself, in a deeply spiritual sense. The prostitutes are also given a chance to atone for their sinful lives, but divulging exactly how would spoil too much of the story. Suffice to say that the young students represent the innocence and purity of women, of humanity, and also of China, which must be preserved.

One of the film's greatest strengths is its cinematography. As the title might suggest, there are numerous moments where a dash of colour - be it a stained glass window or the silk of a cheongsam - shines through the fog and dust of war as a fleeting glimmer of hope, of humanity, of life. There are also moments when colour is used more heavy-handedly, namely when a shocking streak of blood appears on the tip of a bayonet, or smatters across a curtain. The huge red and white cross that emblazons the courtyard outside the cathedral, implores the enemy not to attack this house of God and place of refuge. An international symbol of peace and innocence, the red cross on a white background also makes for a poignant comparison with the Japanese flag, that signals impending horror, and even betrayal when worn on the armbands of coalescing Chinese. Miller himself also stands out as the sole Westerner (save for one brief scene featuring Paul Schneider) amidst an otherwise entirely Asian cast. 

The beautiful actress Ni Ni makes a very strong debut as Yu Mo, the leader of the prostitutes, whose command of English enables her to converse and bargain with Miller, and ultimately to seduce him. She strikes the perfect balance between seductress and scared victim, drawing our gaze even when surrounded by other beauties, and holding her own admirably in numerous scenes with Bale. One minor frustration is that Yu Mo's faltering English often lacks authenticity, and she is able to compose beautiful analogies and allusions when it suits the scene despite her limitations. Not a fault of the character or the performance, but rather of the screenwriters. Elsewhere characters, such as the young student Shu (Zhang Xinyi), or altar boy George (Huang Tianyuan), speak with more convincing inaccuracy, but as the primary character with whom Miller must converse, Yu Mo speaks in poetic phrases that seem unrealistic coming from a character with her limited linguistic skills.

Wisely, Bale is given plenty of freedom with the character of John Miller, and never shies away from making him fallable and unlikable. Ultimately, the audience does warm to him, and so do the other characters, but when it happens, it feels earned, and it is reassuring to see Bale challenge himself in the role, rather than simply taking the cash and phoning in a performance. It is a rare treat for a Western character to be given such responsibility and exposure in a Chinese film, and that such a talented actor has been employed. Bale does good work here, for which he should be proud, despite the political accusations that have been levelled at him in the aftermath of his participation.

In the end I am left conflicted by THE FLOWERS OF WAR. On the one hand it is an impressively staged war drama and a frequently exhilarating experience, from which I honestly feel many viewers can get quite a lot. On the other hand, it is a blinkered, unbalanced and frustrating portrayal of the Japanese that makes no attempt to explain, question or even understand their behaviour. Because of the film's narrow perspective on this particularly troubling chapter of history, it is very difficult to recommend, despite its many strengths. What can be said with some certainty is that THE FLOWERS OF WAR will reach a wider audience than many of China's other recent militaristic dramas, but it is unlikely to win the Chinese Film Industry many more supporters in the long run.

THE FLOWERS OF WAR opened in China on 16 December and will open in Hong Kong on 19 January 2012. 
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