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The Flowers of War

Posted by martinteller on September 18, 2012

It is 1937, and the “Rape of Nanking” has begun.  John Miller (Christian Bale), a boorish American mortician, arrives at a convent girls’ school to bury their priest/teacher.  The body has been blown into nothingness by bombs, but Miller sticks around, demanding his pay.  As he settles in to the relatively comfortable church, a group of prostitutes show up, seeking safe haven from the marauding Japanese soldiers.  Miller gradually (or not so gradually) becomes attached to both the students and the hookers, and together they all struggle to spare the innocent girls from a horrifying fate.

The film is China’s most expensive ever, and it is beautifully rendered.  Too beautifully.  The balletic action and showy camerawork are pleasant to the eye, but work against the horror of the situation.  Godard would most likely hate how pretty this film makes war appear, and I think I’d be on his side.  There are brief glimpses of the chaos outside the convent, but they fail to convey the magnitude of the atrocities committed in Nanking (of course, there are those who say the atrocities have been greatly exaggerated, but let’s not go there).

The script is pretty much a clunker.  The stock characterizations are a drag… the scoundrel who finds redemption, the hooker(s) with a heart of gold, the elegant and cultured but sadistic bad guy.  The few genuinely touching moments are offset by ham-fisted sentimentalism.  Some of the film is harrowing, but much of it is silly, schmaltzy, cheap, clumsily manipulative.  There’s even a dreadfully misplaced love scene.  On the plus side, the Chinese cast all seemed quite good.  The leads — Ni Ni as the main prostitute, Zhang Xinyi as the main schoolgirl and Huang Tianyuan as the priest’s spunky assistant — are endearing and reasonably believable in their roles, a couple of flawed character motivations aside.  Bale doesn’t appear to know what to do with his character, but to be fair, it’s a crap character, written in broad strokes with terrible dialogue.  And there’s little need for him to be American… except the most likely reason, to draw a Western audience.

I’ve now seen three of the four films Zhang has made since the lovely Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.  All have been among his worst work.  It leaves me with little hope for Under the Hawthorn Tree, but I’ll give it a go anyway.  Zhang’s highs — To Live, Raise the Red Lantern, Not One Less, Qiu Ju, Happy Times — are too high to ignore his potential for wonderfully constructed dramas.  This simply just isn’t one of them.  Rating: Poor (56)

IMDb
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