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“The Flowers of War” has been one of the most hyped Chinese films for some time, and with good reason. Boasting a budget of around US$100 million, marking it as the most expensive Chinese production to date, the film sees the return of “Hero” helmer Zhang Yimou to the blockbuster form, following up his quieter “Under the Hawthorn Tree” and “A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop” with a historical World War II drama epic. “Flowers” is also notable for being one of the very few Asian films to feature a proper, Oscar-winning western actor in a lead role, in this case Christian Bale, star of the extremely popular “Dark Knight” series. Unsurprisingly, this led to a fair amount of international interest, and the high profile film has gone down well with audiences and critics around the world, much more so than other recent commercial Chinese efforts, even garnering a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Golden Globe Awards.
Based on a novel by author Yan Geling, the film is set against a backdrop of the infamous 1937 Nanjing Massacre during the Japanese invasion of China, following Bale as John Miller, a mortician hired to bury a priest at the city’s Winchester Cathedral. Arriving to find he is no longer needed, the drunk Miller nevertheless demands to be paid, and plans to stay the night before leaving in the morning, ignoring the pleas of altar boy George (Huang Tianyuan) to rescue the teenage convent school girls hiding there. On the same day, a group of courtesans from the local brothel also arrive seeking shelter, including the beautiful Yu Mo (newcomer Ni Ni), who tries to seduce him and solicit his help in getting them all out of the city. Meanwhile, with only a lone Chinese soldier, Major Li (Tong Dawei, “Treasure Inn”) protecting the cathedral, the Japanese army turn up, the apparently cultured Colonel Hasegawa (Watabe Atsuro, “Zebraman”) asking to hear the girls sing.
Kicking off with an intense, “Saving Private Ryan” style battle scene, filled with dusty destruction and soldiers being bloodily cut down by bullets, it’s immediately clear that “The Flowers of War” is a major departure for Zhang Yimou from his last couple of films. Zhang though is no stranger to bombastic material, and he handles the action well, before the film shifts gears and settles into following Bale, the girls and the prostitutes in the cathedral. The film does bear the unmistakable mark of his direction throughout, with some sumptuous visuals and a gorgeous use of colours. Zhang uses this to focus on contrasts, between the bright stained glass windows and the garishly beautiful clothes of the women, and the grey ruin of the city outside, the film featuring many of his usual slow motion close-ups and near-fetishisation of details. The film’s visuals also make for a fair amount of obvious, though effective symbolism, particularly in its frequent overlaying of the Japanese Imperial flag and that of the Red Cross, and this does lend it a certain artistry. Though at times this results in a rather odd mix, the film switching between being highly stylised and gruesomely gritty, overall the approach works well, Zhang’s penchant for the grandiose being tempered enough to fit the material and to make for compelling viewing.
Crucially, the film also sees Zhang improving somewhat as a storyteller, an area in which past outings such as “House of Flying Daggers” have seen him struggle. Primarily a character piece at heart, the film benefits from a satisfying script from original novelist Yan Geling and Liu Heng, which wisely never puts too much focus on Bale’s westerner, despite the obvious temptation to use him as an easy way into the story for international audiences. Narrated by one of the young girls called Shu (Zhang Xinyi), the film is well structured, and divides its time between its various groups, gradually and rewardingly exploring their differences and growing bonds. With themes of redemption and sacrifice top of the menu, the film is unsurprisingly hard going and depressing at times, though is thankfully moving in heartfelt rather than overly melodramatic fashion and never strives too hard to hammer home its outrage and sadness. While it never manages the powerful depth and subtlety of Lu Chuan’s 2009 masterpiece “City Of Life And Death”, being content to demonise its Japanese villains, it does at least shy away from the kind of nationalism or propagandist rhetoric that would be detracted from the power of its human story.
The presence of Bale gives the film a definite boost, at least in comparison to most other Asian productions which feature western ‘actors’ who appear to have been dragged in off the street. Anchoring, though not overwhelming the film with a decent performance, he successfully manages to make Miller a convincing and eventually likeable figure, and though his journey from greedy drunk to father figure is entirely predictable, it still holds the interest. Zhang again shows himself a director very comfortable working with women, and the film largely belongs to its female characters, in particular to up and coming actress Ni Ni, who does very well as Yo Mo, making her far more than eastern eye candy exoticism, her relationship with Miller emerging as genuine and touching. While the supporting cast largely remain in the background, most of the actresses are suitably sympathetic, and both Tong Dawei and Watabe Atsuro are perfectly respectable in their roles.
This all adds up to make “The Flowers of War” one of the best Chinese wartime epics of recent years, and a solid return to blockbuster film making for Zhang Yimou. Though a bit long at nearly two and a half hours, it’s a powerful and harrowing piece of cinema, and whilst not adding much to what has already been said in other films, it’s well made, written and acted.
Yimou Zhang (director) / Heng Liu (screenplay), Geling Yan (novel)
CAST: Christian Bale … John Miller
Paul Schneider … Terry
Ni Ni … Yu Mo
Xinyi Zhang … Shujuan Meng
Tong Dawei … Major Li
Atsurô Watabe … Colonel Hasegawa
Tianyuan Huang … George
Shigeo Kobayashi … Lt. Kato