I saw "The Flowers of War" a while ago, but it finally hit my local multiplex this past weekend, so I thought I'd get some thoughts out. Is it worth your time? Not really. I mean there was obviously a lot of effort that went into making the film a major event – The Flowers of War" is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, stars bona fide Hollywood movie star Christian Bale, and has Zhang Yimou directing – but it's also incredibly heavy-handed, shallow, and tries too hard to please Western audiences in all the wrong ways.
As indicated by the title this is a war film, specifically one set during the Rape of Nanking in 1937, when the Japanese invaded and terrorized what was then the capital city of China. At a Catholic convent, the old priest has died, stranding the dozen young schoolgirls who are boarded there. Their unlikely savior comes in the form of John Miller (Bale), an itinerant mortician who has come to bury the priest, collect his fee, and be on his way as quickly as possible. However, the encroaching Japanese soldiers make that impossible. Miller and the girls are trapped in the church together, along with a group of local prostitutes who force their way in to seek sanctuary. Miller quickly takes up with their leader, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), to the disdain and fascination of one of the schoolgirls, Shujuan (Xinyi Zhang), who narrates the film for us.
Now to make things easier for the Western audience, much of the film is in English. Almost all of Mr. Bale's dialogue, and the dialogue of anyone having a conversation with him is in English, and perfectly passable English at that. The story is also extremely simplified, so that the characters are not so much characters as easily recognizable types. We have not just one hooker with a heart of gold, but a dozen of them. Mr. Miller may talk big about being a rogue and an opportunist, but is there any doubt that he'll be risking his life for the schoolgirls in the end? And speaking of the schoolgirls, none but Shujuan is given any personality, but the film is full of shots of them looking fearful or sad or wretched, milking their victimhood for all its worth. And I haven't even gotten to the heroic Chinese soldiers or the demonized Japanese invaders yet.
I think that the greatest disservice that "The Flowers of War" does to its subject matter is removing pretty much all the historical context for the Rape of Nanking and the gory particulars of what was actually going on there on a wider scale. The major atrocities are alluded to, but always kept tastefully out of frame. The problem with this is that the reality of the time period and the massacre isn't very well established, and it makes the individual actions of the Japanese villains in the film seem too extreme to be believed, even though the truth was that there was far, far worse going on. The film does take pains to give us a sympathetic Japanese Colonel (Atsuro Watabe) who is only following orders, and a Chinese collaborator (Cao Kefan), Shujuan's father, who is only acting out of self-preservation, but they are too much the sum of their traits, devices rather than full characters.
However, what did work in the film were the prostitutes, a lively bunch who are rough-edged, shameless about their profession, and easily the most endearing characters in the movie. They fight with the schoolgirls, tease each other constantly, flirt with Miller, and bring some much-needed humor and vibrancy to the film. They're the real heroines of the story, and I wish "The Flowers of War" had spent more time with them, instead of with the expensive-looking battle scenes with the soldiers, or letting Christian Bale mug endlessly to the camera. Once we get down to the really tense, life-or-death situations in the last third of the film, suddenly the melodrama works, the tone and the scale of the film feel appropriate, and I was enjoying it. But I had to sit through an hour and a half of really mediocre, obvious posturing and platitudes to get there.
There is plenty to like about "The Flowers of War." It's a great looking movie. The cinematography is excellent, the production design is gorgeous, and the story is a very compelling one. But it's also far too long, terribly padded, and it wears its intentions on its sleeve. It's too often clumsy and didactic, operating on the level of fable or allegory instead of proper historical fiction. And some of the directing choices are odd – why do the prostitutes have a song number in the middle of the film? Why are all of Bale's intimate scenes with Ni Ni so badly staged and dialogue-heavy? What's especially puzzling is the price tag of the movie. Sure, it looks great, but this is far from the most impressive Chinese film I've seen, or even the most impressive from Zhang Yimou, who is known for his ostentatious period pieces.
Oh well. "The Flowers of War" was at least an interesting experiment with a few good moments. We'll probably see more like it in the future as Hollywood keeps trying to cozy up to China. Better luck next time.