CHRISTIAN BALE NI NI XINYI ZHANG PAUL SCHNEIDER TONG DAWEI
THE FLOWERS OFWAR
When I first saw the trailer for this bilingual foreign film and wrapped my brain
around Oscar winner Christian Bale starring in a Chinese film, I was very excited
about a project that appeared so completely unorthodox. The Flowers of War is now
the most expensive film made in China ($90+ million dollar budget), and it has already
made its money back in foreign markets alone. Clearly, casting “Batman” (Christian
Bale) will draw universal appeal to a semi-true story that looks and feels like it
could have been produced by Quentin Tarantino. I have reviewed many war films, but
The Flowers of War is unlike anything I have seen previously; it tends to lean towards
Japanese-style violence, but always shows great restraint when necessary.
John Miller (Bale) is a Westerner trying to get to the Catholic Church in the city
of Nanking, China, where he has been hired as a mortician to carry out a service.
It’s 1937 in the middle of the Chinese-Japanese war, and the city of Nanking has
fallen to the Japanese. Miller finds himself trapped in the church with a group of
teenage female students, the deceased priest’s adopted son (Dawei) and 14 expensive
prostitutes. Miller is forced to wear the priest’s robe in an attempt to spare the
young children’s lives, while the prostitutes hide in the cellar. Together, they
must devise a plan of escape that will mean the sacrifice of many to save the lives
of a few.
When the camera finally reveals the beautiful church that will be the focus of the
film, we are introduced to a breathtaking set. Often, in war films like Saving Private
Ryan, The Flags of Our Fathers, etc., you rarely see color; and yet here, director
Yimou Zhang (The House of Flying Daggers) uses bursts of color on screen in the most
unlikely places. Based on an incredible true story, The Flowers of War, which is
40% English-speaking and 60% Chinese subtitles, is captivating from beginning to
end. Bale delivers a rousing and commanding performance as a drunkard called to the
most unlikely of duties.
The sustaining suspense, along with the incredible visuals, is a feast for the eyes.
The production value is clearly very high. The pacing of the film works well over
the nearly two and half hour running time; we get the right amount of violence and
action sequences to break up the more dramatic and moving sequences. Two elements
of the film I didn’t respond to as favorably were the lighter moments involving music
and song and some of the untimely jokes (no doubt to lighten the very dark mood of
the film). Like most Asian violence depicted in an R-rated film, the violence, death,
and rape in a wartime setting is showcased here in the most brutal fashion, which
certainly speaks to the film’s credibility. I’m disappointed that The Flowers of
War did not make the Oscars’ prequalifying cut for Best Foreign Film, because it’s
an outstanding achievement.
Final Thought – One of the most unique, beautiful, and commanding films of 2011.