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The Flowers of War

Row 1 Entertainment

Zhang Yimou and Christian Bale's take on the Nanjing massacre is burdened with a far-fetched plot.

It's something you'd think only the crassest of Hollywood producers would come up with -- injecting sex appeal into an event as ghastly at the Nanjing massacre. But that's an element central to The Flowers of War, a contrived and unpersuasive look at an oft-dramatized historical moment. One of the first Chinese-financed features to top-line a major American star, Zhang Yimou's elaborately produced drama automatically will draw attention due to the presence of Christian Bale atop the cast, but has the misfortune of coming close on the heels of a truly outstanding film with the same setting, Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death. After a Dec. 16 commercial launch on home turf, Wrekin Hill has set one-week runs beginning Dec. 23 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a wider release to follow next year.

Based on a historical novel by high-profile Chinese writer Yan Geling and scripted by Liu Heng, whose collaboration with the director extends back to Ju Dou, Flowers is a conscious bid to make the horrifying story dramatically accessible by placing a politically unaligned American in the middle of a desperate group of convent schoolgirls and courtesans.

Offering little historical background, other than to state that more than 200,000 people were slaughtered during and after the Japanese invasion of China's then-capital, the action begins in the city's rubble after its fall on Dec. 13, 1937. In a position of tenuous safety are the female students at Winchester Cathedral, which offers places to hide from the victorious Japanese soldiers who are rampaging.

Taking refuge there as well is lone wolf American John Miller (Bale), who in his manner of speaking sounds both silly and anachronistic (he makes repeated use of "whatever"). His description by one of the Chinese as a "jerk" could not be more apt, as Miller starts raiding the sanctuary's wine stash, and behaves selfishly in every instance. There could be various motives behind portraying the white guy in the story as a money-grubbing, unintelligent and uncouth mercenary but, of course, the ideologically uncommitted Yank in foreign climes is a standard movie character, with Bogart's Rick in Casablanca as the most memorable standard-bearer. Let's just say Bale's Miller doesn't quite measure up. Neither the script nor the actor provides the character with any backstory, real or invented.

Scaling the walls to find some protection of their own are 13 fancy ladies from a local brothel. Decked as if ready to do a chorus number from Flower Drum Song, the boisterous gals make themselves right at home. For his part, Miller can't believe his good fortune and takes an immediate interest in the haughtiest of them all, the gorgeous Yu Mo (expressive newcomer Ni Ni), who also has by far the best English.

Eventually a Japanese officer requests that the convent girls sing at a "party" for Japanese officers, which everyone knows will result in rape and worse, triggering an exceptional climactic act of self-sacrifice on the part of the heretofore superficial, materialistic prostitutes, with the heroic participation of Miller. Once the gears are set in motion for the big finale, there's too much dawdling over the details, which slows dramatic momentum and accentuates the far-fetched plot. When Miller, who has unaccounted-for skills as a hairdresser and makeup artist, finishes work on Mo, he's told, in the film's most unfortunate lapse into modern parlance, that the rest of the girls "all want you to give them a makeover!"

If Warner Bros. had made a film with this plot back in 1942, it would have made effective anti-Japanese propaganda and probably absorbing drama in the bargain. Today it just plays like hokum.

Release date Dec. 23 (Wrekin Hill)
Cast Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Huang Tianyuan, Cao Kefan
Director Zhang Yimou
142 minutes