The Flowers of War
I sometimes worry about my credibility as a film critic. Almost all the movies I review are multiplex blockbuster fare (or crappy local films); I hardly ever watch any more, um, substantial stuff. I have a pretty big pile of unwatched DVDs that include highly-acclaimed and award-winning titles from years ago. In my defense, the local cinema releases keep me busy enough, and I certainly catch any critically buzzed-about film that actually gets released here as much as I can. Which brings us to The Flowers of War, Zhang Yimou's magnum opus set during the Rape of Nanjing, and China's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the last Academy Awards - although it didn't make the shortlist. But a Zhang Yimou film starring Christian Bale, making it the closest thing to a Hollywood Zhang Yimou film? I couldn't miss it.
Besides, most Chinese audiences will probably think it's a very important film. An oh so very very important film.
It is the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the city of Nanjing has just fallen to the invading Japanese army. An American mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale) heads through the ruined city towards the Winchester Cathedral, where he has been contracted to bury the head priest - but the church is only manned by a boy named George Chen (Huang Tianyuan) who tells him there is no money to pay him, as well as a group of Catholic convent girls hiding out from the Japanese. And shortly afterwards, they are joined by a gaggle of prostitutes from the city's red-light district - also, Major Li (Tong Dawei), a lone surviving Chinese soldier, holes up outside to prepare an almost-certainly-hopeless defense. At first, the drunken Miller wants nothing to do with the refugees, even though one student named Shu (Zhang Xinyi) has a crush on him, and the de facto leader of the prostitutes, Yu Mo (Ni Ni) attempts to seduce him into helping them flee the city. But when the Japanese break through and threaten the girls with brutal rape and murder, Miller is finally moved into heroism - even as an entire army bent on ravaging their city stands between them and safety.
In the aforementioned big pile of unwatched DVDs is City of Life and Death, which I had picked up on the strength of LoveHKFilm's and McGarmott's reviews. No, I still haven't watched it - but from both their reviews, I expect it's the better film about the Rape of Nanjing. A lot of what's been written about it sounds like it does a lot of things right where The Flowers of War went wrong. But first, let me reassure you that this is not a bad movie. Zhang Yimou does not make bad movies (even though he does not always achieve the greatness he aims for, as in this case). This is a beautifully mounted production, clearly costing lots of renminbi and looks like it was worth every yuan. Zhang is an exacting filmmaker, and gorgeous, precisely-composed shots clearly have the stamp of the man who directed Hero. The man clearly knows how to make an effectively manipulative melodrama; it is never not a compelling watch, and many scenes evoke the strong emotions Zhang is going for.
The problem is that this is a film about the Rape of Nanjing. One of the most horrifying atrocities in recent history, and still a highly emotionally-charged subject for every living Chinese. "Beautiful" and "gorgeous" are not exactly appropriate words for it - yet this is the approach Zhang took. I knew the film was suspect in the opening scenes, when we saw the last-ditch defense by the ragged remnants of the Chinese garrison against the invading Japanese. It was an effectively choreographed action scene, but I kept wondering why we were spending so much time on this when the movie's supposed to be about a group of refugees in a church. There's also a subplot involving the prostitutes who supposedly worked at a red light district with a thousand-year-old history, which the film wanted to romanticise while at the same time allowing the prostitutes to perform a heroic sacrifice that both affirms and redeems their ancient traditions. This we know because they say so, in just so many highly on-the-nose words - but more puzzling than that is a weird fantasy sequence in which they sashay down the church aisle in slow motion while a disco ball glitters above them.
It's a somewhat stylised film, is what I'm trying to say, and the stylisation tends to undercut the gravity of the real-life horrors that it means to depict. And even when it's not resorting to slow-mo or fantasy sequences or carefully-composed explosions of colours, it tends to play everything too broadly. The students all cry and scream hysterically, and although you can't quite expect 13-year-old girls to be stoic when facing gang-rape, their histrionics gets a bit much. On the other hand, the prostitutes (the ones not named Yu Mo, that is) bitch and whine constantly about their jewellery, their er hu strings, their pet cat, and other trivialities that they stupidly put themselves in danger for. This brings us to the rape scene - because you can't make a movie about this historical event without showing that - which is one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen on the big screen. It's a grisly fate for a character whom the film allows us to get to know (I'm hiding her identity for fear of spoilers, but really, once she leaves the safety of the cathedral, there's a horrible inevitability to what awaits her).
The end result is that you're horrified at the movie, not at the actual historical Rape of Nanjing; instead of feeling the weight of the real-life tragedy that happened just 55 years ago, you walk out just feeling nonplussed about what you saw. Or rather, I did - perhaps the primarily Chinese audience with me was all "Every Chinese must watch this! We must never forget what happened to our people! Oh the inhumanity!" I'm guessing the film worked great with them, which is why I'm giving it 3-½ stars. Me, I think the subject matter warranted a more restrained approach. Zhang has been accused of propaganda, which I can see; you'll not find a more cackingly, demonically evil bunch of villains than the Japanese soldiers in this movie, and not even the appearance of the seemingly more honourable Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe) will mitigate that portrayal. What I thought was more apparent is that Zhang is guilty of exploitation. Not for the purpose of titillation - that would've been unforgivable - but exploitation of the horrors of the events to manipulate our emotions.
Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Christian Bale. His performance is expectedly fine, but his very presence raises the question Roger Ebert brought up: why does this story need a white person to be our viewpoint character? The answer is that this is a China production intended to be China's entry to the Oscars; the powers-that-be want to sell Chinese culture to the West, and Zhang Yimou is their pitchman. And while a film about a recent historical atrocity ought to make for a worthwhile product, the ends appear to have unduly influenced the means. It's trying too hard. (And I could've told them the typically overblown Asian style of melodrama doesn't really fly with Western audiences.) Still, flaws and all, it's a worthwhile watch, if you can stomach a really unpleasant rape/murder scene. And Ni Ni's big screen debut is pretty amazing as Yu Mo, the most seductive of the prostitutes. (The rest of whom, like the schoolgirls not named Shu, get barely any characterisation aside from misplaced priorities in a time of war.) The white guy even gets to sleep with her, so there's that too.
NEXT REVIEW: Battleship
Expectations: big, loud and dumb - question is, how dumb?