The Flowers of War: Film Review

"The Flowers of War"
New Pictures Film Co. Ltd.

Schoolgirls race home through bombed streets.

An unconvincing yarn of hookers, convent girls and a phony priest during the Nanjing massacre.

Based on Yan Geling's novel "13 Flowers of Nanjing," the Nanjing massacre plays front and center in director Zhang Yimou's tale.

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 it'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 topline a major American star (Inseparable, with Kevin Spacey, debuted at Pusan in October), 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 so 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. But commercial prospects, at least in North America, look very limited.

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Based on a historical novel by high-profile Chinese writer Yan Geling, which will be published in the U.S. next year, and scripted by Liu Heng, whose collaboration with the director extends back to Ju Dou, Flowers is a conscious bid to make the horrors of the Nanjing story dramatically accessible to a wider audience by placing a politically unaligned American in the middle of a desperate group of local civilians comprised 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 (City put the figure at over 300,000, reflecting ongoing controversy over the extent of the casualties), 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 sits behind walls and offers places to hide from the victorious Japanese soldiers who are rampaging without restraint.

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Taking refuge there as well is lone wolf American John Miller (Bale), who with his bushy beard resembles a '60s hippie and 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, demands nonexistent money 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 to that standard.

It's clear from the outset that Miller needs to start at such a low point so that he'll have an impressive dramatic arc to forge, from self-centered sot to noble knight. Unfortunately, neither the script nor the actor provide the character with any backstory, real or invented; he expresses shock at the suffering he witnesses, but where has he been for the past few weeks? The character brings no viewpoint or power of observation to anything and morally is just an empty vessel, waiting to be filled.

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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 loud, boisterous gals push the cowed teenage students aside and 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. Reassuring Miller that the Japanese “won't touch Westerners,” Mo withholds any favors for the moment, promising the eager fellow, “If you help us, I will help you in ways that you can't imagine. All of us will.”

Miller's inadvertent transformation from miscreant to saint of sorts begins when he dons priestly robes for fun and thus deters intruding Japanese soldiers who run into the church shouting, “We've got virgins!” Seeing the advantages of the pose, Miller continues to wear the vestments, shaves his beard and grows into the personage of “Father John.”

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A “good” Japanese officer later apologizes for his men's waywardness and supplies protection for a while. But he eventually 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.

An undeniable emotional and moral potency lies behind the way these good-time lowlifes rise to the occasion to perform one great selfless act when called upon to do so. But too much about the circumstances and the manner in which the ruse is pulled off is unrealistic and unbelievable, from both a real-world and cinematic point of view, to make the payoff credible or as powerful as it means to be.

Although some scenes venture out into the corpse-strewn city streets to provide an idea of the ongoing barbarity and horror, most of the picture is confined to the church and immediate surroundings. One of the young girls, Shu (Zhang Xinyi), provides perspective through narration, and a couple of other interesting characters emerge, including a smart, bespectacled boy, George (Huang Tianyuan), who looks after his pubescent female colleagues, and Mr. Meng (Cao Kefan), a collaborationist with an uncertain lease on life.

Once the gears are set in motion for the big finale, there's too much dawdling over the details, which has the double negative effect of slowing dramatic momentum and accentuating the far-fetched nature of the 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.

Opens: Dec. 23 (Wrekin Hill Entertainment)
Production: Row 1 Productions, New Pictures Film Corp.
Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Huang Tianyuan, Han Xiting, Zhang Doudou, Tong Dawai, Cao Kefan, Atsuro Watabe,Yangyang Chunzi, Sun Jai, Li Yuemin, Bai Xue, Shigeo Kobayashi, Takashi Yamanaka, Paul Schneider
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Liu Heng, based on the novel 13 Flowers of Nanjng by Geling Yan
Producer: Zhang Weiping
Executive producers: Chaoying Deng, David Linde, Bill Kong
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Costume and makeup designer: William Chang Suk-Ping
Editor: Meng Peicong
Music: Chan Quigang
142 minutes