Movie Review – The Flowers of War (2011)
Director Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War is at times an incredibly poignant and starkly brutal look at one of the 20th Century’s biggest human disasters in the Rape of Nanking that ultimately suffers from being much too manipulative as well as being unwisely geared to two distinctly different markets. Mainland Chinese will undoubtedly know every minute detail of this tragedy but for those in the West it can best be described with the eerie and downright bone chilling analogy that this is essentially the Chinese version of the Holocaust. Suffice it to say, this is not one of humanity’s greatest moments and is a massive open wound to the Chinese psyche so it is no surprise that the mere mention of it will probably illicit a strong emotional response.
The year is 1937, long before the outbreak of the Second World War in the Pacific, as the Imperial Japanese forces have launched their assault on Mainland China quickly occupying Shanghai and moving to capture Nanking, which was at that time the capital of the country. Although fierce fighting ensued, the city has more or less fallen to the Japanese forces as the remaining Chinese military retreats out of the city to regroup. However, since at this point in time Japan has only declared war on China, the International refuge parts of the city filled with Westerners has been exempt from fighting as political forces have deemed it unwise to actively provoke an unnecessary military response.
In this situation comes American John Miller (Christian Bale), a mortician by trade who is attempting to make a living in the blasted remains of the city as well as basically survive the massacre going on around him. As the movie opens he has been hired to bury a Priest at the local Convent school but upon arrival finds that the corpse has basically been vaporized due to a direct artillery shell that has left a gaping hole in the ground. Undaunted, Miller demands payment from the Convent but discovers there is no cash on the premises so he decides to stay the night before heading back to the relative security of the International refuge.
Miller is not the best model of decency, an alcoholic who seems to only have self-interest at heart, yet his world comes crashing down due to the fact that the Convent is soon beset by Japanese troops with only one thing in mind – to capture and rape the young school girls in an act of pure barbarism that stuns him to the core. Watching the impending violence explode around him and witnessing first-hand the sheer viciousness of the troops which nonchalantly throw an innocent girl from the second story balcony to her death, he attempts to stop them by pretending to be the resident priest.
The Flowers of War certainly has an incredibly strong start that is at once both breathtaking in its pace and emotional intensity but the narrative soon takes a different turn when a fleeing group of prostitutes appears at the Convent and forces their way into taking over the basement cellar. At first the young schoolgirls are incredibly disgusted at these wanton debauched women and there is a palpable friction between both groups which cannot get along with one another. Miller is amused at this but he comes to quickly realize that all these women, young and mature, along with him are now basically stuck in a prison-like atmosphere since the Convent is now surrounded and guarded by Japanese troops. Though he conspires to discover a way to save everyone it soon becomes clear that the Japanese forces are not there to protect them but rather to keep them at bay for “use” later in obviously shameless ways.
To be perfectly blunt, The Flowers of War is an effective film that could have been so much better than the final product due to the fact that it inherently feels as if it is trying to pander to one too many a target audience. The mere inclusion of Christian Bale as the lead in a totally Mainland Chinese production should raise flags for everyone that director Zhang Yimou is attempting to expand the audience to include International viewers which is not a bad idea but it effectively leaves his movie feeling as if it should have been split in two.
Take the entire opening segment featuring a kind of Alamo last stand between the remaining Chinese platoon under Major Li (Tong Dawei) who attempts to save the fleeing Convent girls by drawing attention to themselves. While the sequence is immaculately shot and simply oozes visceral energy it acts as a giant weight that eats up roughly 15-20 minutes of screentime that really does not advance the plot or allow much needed characterization above and beyond the fact that Major Li is sacrificing his men for the moral greater good. Additionally, although the Chinese platoon is decimated they take out reams of Japanese troops including a good two or three armored tanks making it seem as if the action is there to give Mainland Chinese audiences something to cheer about watching gallant individuals face their fate with honour and dignity.
Later on in the movie Major Li finds himself alone and in yet another action sequence totally eviscerates more Japanese troops in a skillful rouse that manages to draw attention away from the Convent yet the problem here is even more magnified as the way the scene plays out makes it seem as if he alone is some sort of superhero who decimates the enemy with ease. Both of these action sequences are meticulously shot and Zhang Yimou being the consummate professional does exactly the right thing in not doing a Michael Bay and employing a kind of spastic rapid editing style. Instead, he allows his camera to linger at key moments or to indulge in longer takes adding some real tension to the action. Yet for all the technical wizardry these action scenes eat up far too much screen time and take away precious focus on the real narrative taking place inside the Convent between Miller and both groups of women.
It is apparent that director Zhang Yimou’s intention for the film is not to create a massive documentary-like expose detailing the entire ordeal of the Rape of Nanking from start to finish but rather to distill the many issues surrounding this event into a much smaller scale narrative. Yet for all its merits the entire film never truly reaches greatness because no matter what shot, dialogue or musical score is employed the fact remains that the viewer is always aware that the puppet master is there attempting to pull at your heartstrings and in this case subtlety might have been a better tactic.
To be fair to director Zhang Yimou when I mention subtlety I am not referring to scaling back on showing the barbaric atrocities committed but rather the entire film is far too mechanical a construct that seems to have been put together to accomplish only one thing – to wring a violent positive or negative emotional response. This is obviously a massively traumatic event yet the audience should be allowed enough time to process information and make a determination for themselves as to what is transpiring instead of being quickly shuffled off to yet another emotionally charged segment.
At nearly two and a half hours in length The Flowers of War still feels incredibly light in terms of its plot and much of the problem here stem from a script that barely scratches the surface of its main characters. Aside from Father Miller (Christian Bale) and the leader of the prostitutes Yu Mo (Ni Ni) the rest of the cast are woefully defined, a massive missed opportunity that plays havoc with the way the film is constructed. This is because I doubt there is anyone in the movie theatre or at home which already doesn’t know the crux of the plot as it is telegraphed in all the trailers and advertising material that in order to save the young girls from being sexually ravaged the prostitutes end up taking their place, essentially doing the honorable thing in the process.
Nevertheless, without truly getting to know more of either the girls or the prostitutes it ends up creating a scenario where powerful empathy for their plight is subdued as there is really no one but Yu Mo whom we wish to cheer for. It would have done wonders if Zhang Yimou and screenwriter Liu Heng spent more time fleshing out a few more characters in order to build a compelling emotional bond between them and the audience. Worse still, the dialogue that is accorded to supporting characters is rarely insightful and often times ill-advised such as the constant nagging between prostitutes or the awkward moments where their sense of intelligence has certainly gone out the window due to yet another manufactured plot point designed to force audiences to reach for tissue paper.
Case in point is the segment of the movie where it is revealed that two prostitutes have somehow escaped from the church to venture back to their brothel to retrieve spare strings for their broken Pipa instrument in order to play a melody for a dying young soldier. The sentimental reason is sound but anyone in their right mind would never attempt such a feat and the way the scene ends is easily foreshadowed but does nothing but provide conflicting emotions since their desires end up being dashed yet at the same time making them appear to be moronic for even concocting such a plan. Worse still, the movie completely forgets or completely ignores the glaring plot hole that it never explains how the two women managed to elude the Japanese armed guards when leaving the Church, a point of contention that Father Miller even ruminates upon out loud since it might be a cogent piece of information to use if they ever needed to escape. However, the point is never brought up again leaving the thread hanging in the breeze with no resolution.
As it stands the audience is never fully involved and only really wants our heroes to succeed since they represent the forces of good while the Japanese are evil. This is much too stark a contrast and it clashes with the decent attempts that the film makes in trying to show that not all Japanese were brutes such as the gentlemanly Lieutenant Hasegawa (Atsurô Watabe) who really does seem to be honorable and cultured enough to show some apparent weakness in singing a mournful song that he wishes to go home rather than be in a war. Even here the film misses a golden opportunity to construct what should have been an enlightening dynamic between Miller who is pretending to be a priest and Hasegawa who really comes across as someone who loathes what he is doing. Perhaps a few dialogue exchanges could have delved into what war means to different people and how they react to brutality around them yet it never materializes.
A much bigger issue is the very nature of the Rape of Nanking itself as those who are already educated about the event will have no problem settling down and knowing what to expect. Additionally, since they already understand exactly how this event came to pass as well as the atrocities committed they don’t require the film to provide extended exposition. However, what about those who really have no clue what the Rape of Nanking was about? The Flowers of War botches this badly because it doesn’t spend enough time trying to make its case about why this event has ended up becoming an open wound in modern Chinese culture as it barely skims the surface of the tragedy. While the harrowing rape scenes, which are thankfully well shot so as to avoid being truly grisly, are here in full force as well as the wanton barbarism of the Japanese soldiers, the fact remains that the film never bothers to illustrate any sense of scale and I doubt any layman will understand the true enormity of this human disaster.
Watching the film a viewer without historical knowledge might be lured into thinking that the scenes showing Japanese soldiers going almost door to door looking for women to “take” was an isolated incident yet this would not be correct. Endless shots of destroyed structures and blasted concrete certainly makes it seem that parts of the city have been levelled yet it gets nowhere close in portraying the supposed 200,000-300,000 deaths that happened in this six week period.
Still, for all its narrative dilution, the film is engaging due to its leads in Christian Bale and newcomer Ni Ni as the most educated prostitute, Yu Mo. Bale’s intensity and flexibility as an actor are on full display and it is exciting to watch him portray a character with a clearly defined arc as he moves from a kind of rudderless drunkard to being more enlightened. Although this is an incredibly rote and overused plot device Bale is more than convincing enough to make audiences care as well as identify at how he changes over the course of the film.
Ni Ni is yet another actress that rises to the occasion, a fact that film lovers everywhere should have foreseen as she is the latest in a long line of starlets to have been discovered and promoted by Zhang Yimou who previously picked Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi from out of nowhere to become leads in his films and who have since gone on to become International superstars. I can’t say that Ni Ni reaches the lofty heights of her peers but she at least does something different from her predecessors in spending half the film speaking in Mandarin and the other in surprisingly eloquent English. She’s particularly impressive standing toe to toe with Bale although it is much more captivating when they indulge in intellectual conversation rather than the forced romantic machinations of the plot.
Speaking of romance, while it does work between Bale and Ni Ni the film’s quasi-love triangle that includes the convent girl Shujuan Meng (Xinyi Zhang) never clicks because the film never bothers to make the young innocent woman a match for the mature Bale. Thus Shu’s never stated affection for him is nothing more than a young girl’s first infatuation which completely rules her out of the mix not to mention the fact that it would really muddy the moral waters if this came to pass as Miller is old enough to be her father. It might have been a much better idea for Zhang Yimou to throw out this entire subtext as it is much too creepy and it leaves a rather foul aftertaste that should not have been allowed to gestate.
However, watching both Bale and Ni NI work together brings up a rather salient point in terms of performance as audiences will no doubt discern a vast different in acting styles between East and West. Bale is much more extroverted and aggressive here as it fits his character yet at the same time his entire body language and facial expressions seem to clash with the more theatrically subdued Chinese cast who nearly all internalize emotion rather than explicitly showing it until they are forced to by the script. Perhaps this was Zhang Yimou’s plan all along yet it does much to further split the movie into two different segments, one of which is clearly meant for International audiences and the other for Mainland viewers.
I realize some professional critics have eviscerated Bale’s work here not because of his acting but by calling into question the use of a Western lead in a Mainland Chinese film but this is one case where I think they are all missing the point. Even though I have an issue between different acting styles or the lazy pandering to different target audiences the fact remains that the film needs a Western lead because the plot demands it as per historical fact. This is because the only way anyone could traverse the city with relative impunity would be if they were Japanese or a Westerner as Imperial Japan was not formally at war with anyone but China at this point in history. If the lead were changed to a Chinese man it would have diluted the reasoning immensely as one gets the impression that the Japanese would not have backed down if it were a Chinese priest running the convent as there would be no political deterrent for them to essentially massacre or partake in a massive rape as they intended as no foreign power would potentially be involved.
Zhang Yimou has certainly proven himself in the past with some incredibly biting and emotionally charged films that strike at the very essence of the human soul. Watching To Live or Raise the Red Lantern it is apparent that Yimou works best when dealing with tortured characters that experienced hardship at every turn. Some of his characters rise to the occasion while others plainly wilt like gilded flowers. This is what is inexplicably missing in The Flowers of War as the real human tragedy that is born from momentous events is incredibly slight here even though the historical context is at its most harsh and sadistic. It is as if the great director has seemingly switched off his emotional compass and decided to focus on every minute technical detail of which the film is nearly flawless. At the same time the narrative is much too obvious and when it comes time for the final act of sacrifice its intended swell of emotion is just not present and instead filled with a kind of bittersweet sentimentality that is not at all what is required. The Flowers of War is not Zhang Yimou’s best work yet there’s just enough worth here to recommend it due to its sumptuous production values and mostly energizing cast but it could have been so much better if the script discarded extraneous elements and focused more on building up the various characters to a point where the audience is invested enough to care about their fate.
**1/2 out of ****
2011, China, 145 min,
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Screenplay by Liu Heng
Produced by Zhang Weiping
Executive Producer Deng Chaoying, William Kong, David Linde, Leo Shi Young
Based on the novel by Yan Geling
Original Music by Chen Qigang
Cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding
Christian Bale: John Miller
Ni Ni: Yu Mo
Xinyi Zhang: Shujuan Meng
Tong Dawei: Major Li
Atsurô Watabe: Colonel Hasegawa
Tianyuan Huang: George
Shigeo Kobayashi: Lt. Kato
Kefan Cao: Mr. Meng
Paul Schneider: Terry
© 2012 The Galactic Pillow