Directed by: Zhang Yimou, Runtime: 148 minutes
In The Flowers of War, director Zhang Yimou turns his attention to late-1930s China during the Nanjing Massacre: a six-week stretch during the Second Sino-Japanese War, made notorious for the bountiful slaughter and violation of China's populace. The time period between the '20s and '40s, and the diligence of China's people amidst hardship, is familiar to the director given his successes with Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, yet this marks his first concentrated glimpse into the volatility and bloodshed that accompanies warfare. Naturally, this isn't a topic that's easy to watch -- explosions, dilapidation, and fear of a fate worse than death -- and it's difficult for beauty to emerge from those conditions. With his visually robust aesthetic and persuasive dramatic perspective in-tow, director Zhang shoulders the challenge and takes the audience into a situation that finds intimate, fraught beauty within the hopeless bunkered strain of war, one that successfully trundles between schmaltz and deep-rooted historical drama in its tale of hope.
Roughly based on the novella "13 Flowers of Nanjing" by Geling Yan, Zhang Yimou tells the story of an American mortician, John Miller (Christian Bale), who's been sent to prepare a deceased priest in 1937 war-ravaged Nanjing. He discovers, upon his arrival at the church, a group of twelve young Chinese girls holed up there with little money, less food, and no way of defending themselves if the Japanese arrive -- save the unaware soldiers fighting outside their walls. Miller, a prickly drunkard with a loud mouth, doesn't adhere to heroism as a natural trait, yet he's compelled to stick around when a large group of needy prostitutes (notably their "matriarch", the disarming Yu Mo (Ni Ni)) force their way into the church's doors for sanctuary. As the battle outside slowly makes its way into the church's gothic walls, complete with wildly-flying bullets and wall-rattling explosions, they all realize that they've got to find a way to escape if they're going to survive, because the crumbling stony foundation won't keep them safe for long. And Miller, the somewhat-immune American, is the key.
Director Zhang utilizes his signature visual-heavy style as he guides our perspective through the war-torn streets of Nanjing, accentuating slow-motion camerawork and punchy violence with a skilled eye for exhilarating sequences. The Flowers of War begins as you'd expect from the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers: powdered ash creates a unique visual spectacle among bloody bayonets and popped guitar strings, while the densely-textured environment employs broad, abstract use of the production's robust budget (the highest in China's history). But it's not all smoke and mirrors to cloud the story; it showcases intention, in military storms through the streets and vigorous gunfire sequences, behind conveying the traumatic brutality that exists outside the church's walls. When these bullets shatter the stained glass of the monastery's few outlook points in disarming displays, the same places where the children view the violence outside, it's clear that the director isn't merely creating visual flourishes for the sake of artful confection.
Christian Bale keeps the momentum moving as John Miller, who ends up being a more curious character than expected. It'd be easy to dismiss him as a generic white-faced American entity who finds redemption outside the comforts of home, but there's more to the roguish mortician than that. It's no great surprise or spoiler that the man exhibits a transformation under the church's roof; spending time amidst the sultry presence of the prostitutes and the righteous tempering of the girls, both camps equally defenseless, reshapes his persona from a boozed up mortician to a righteous man posing as a priest. His transition becomes an earnest one, mixing flickers of his persona in The Fighter with the composure of a man who's suffered great loss, which sharpen the edge on scenes where he demands money from the church and propositions a prostitute. There are scenes where he's overtly vivacious early on, and the comparison of his character before and after the events in the church seems stark, but there's validity in his dramatic poise that sells Miller's transformation.
No matter how well-written the characters and scenario are, though, and no matter how exquisite the cast of Chinese locals fills out its dramatic force, The Flowers of War's dependence on ham-fisted plot contrivances keeps the work out-of-reach from greatness. It conveniently grasps onto the importance of Miller's past profession and the dichotomy between the younger girls and older women, and as it approaches its harrowing conclusion -- one with cathartic, well-meaning overtones of redemption and perseverance -- certain plot developments cannot help from appearing as heavy-handed machinations, engineered to rouse heavy-chested emotion. Despite that, it still works; while there's something undeniably forced about its structure, there's power in the genuine performances, the scenario's immediacy, and the briskly-moving emotional tempo that earn forgiveness for manipulative tactics. Zhang knows how to find the beauty within his tales of resilience in the face of insurmountable odds, and his intimate depiction of a scenario inside the Nanjing Massacre is no different.
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