The Flowers of War
3 & ½ out of 4 stars
Undoubtedly, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has proven to be among the most talented filmmakers in Asia. Since his 1990 debut ‘To Live’, Zhang consistently makes films which challenge audiences’ expectations, exploring issues of gender, ethnicity, love, and social expectations through the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. It’s almost an irony that such a honest and emotionally raw storyteller could arise from a guarded communist state such as China: unsurprisingly, several of Zhang’s movies have been banned in his own country for criticising its ruling regime. In the words of his friend Steven Spielberg, ‘he is truly a director of visual and emotional splendour, [who is capable of] educating, entertaining, and enlightening all of us’.
As such, it is unsurprising that his latest movie ‘The Flowers of War’ is a true artistic triumph. Arguably the most heartfelt movie ever made on the Rape of Nanking, the WWII incident where the Japanese brutally massacred the entire inhabitants of the Chinese city, the film easily impresses with its riveting story of human compassion, grand performances from its international cast, and gorgeous production values such as its cinematography and costume design. Even Western audiences that have never watched a Chinese film will be engrossed by what is simply filmmaking at its evocative best.
The movie’s central character is John (Christian Bale), a crude and cynical American mortician who arrives in war torn Nanjing to bury a priest. After narrowly avoiding death at the hands of the Japanese soldiers, John arrives at the city’s church, only to find that the only inhabitants left are thirteen choir girls stranded in the church. Soon, the girls and John find themselves joined by a group of fleeing prostitutes seeking shelter, much to the chagrin of the prudish schoolgirls. Initially, the rag-tag group of survivors immediately breaks into conflict, with John planning to leave them all behind as soon as he can fix his truck. However, when the Japanese soldiers surround the church and prevent anyone from leaving, it becomes clear that the girls must resolve their differences in order to survive. Presented with the chance to save lives, John has a change of heart and eventually becomes a leader to the women as they begin a desperate fight for their survival.
Like Zhang’s earlier classic ‘Raise the Red Lantern’, the film’s story takes place largely indoors in a confined location, and is carried forward primarily through dialogue and character development rather than physical action. Ultimately, this allows the director to personalise the historical events of Nanjing, with all of the major characters embarking on major journeys of personal growth through the film in an intimate story of human emotion that ranks among the most moving in recent memory. These emotional transformations are made only more engrossing by their resolution in the film’s masterful climax, which is tinged with sadness yet also optimism at the strength of the human spirit. Even despite its grim subject matter, ‘The Flowers of War’ is at its heart an uplifting film about the human capacity for compassion in times of tragedy.
Obviously, ‘The Flowers of War’ is a milestone in Chinese cinema in that is the first pairing of an A-list Hollywood star with a Chinese director. As always, Christian Bale brings an unparalleled professionalism to his part, completely disappearing into John’s skin in a manner that puts fellow stars such as Tom Cruise to shame. Even though the character’s emotional arc is slightly exaggerated – his lewd, unruly behaviour at the film’s start is comical and arguably inappropriate to the film’s tone – once the character dons the priest’s robes and begins to genuinely care for the girls, Bale immediately commands the audience’s attention until the picture’s end. The supporting cast is also excellent: as the lead choir girl, Ma Ying brings a determination and drive to her character, acting as a leader to her peers and never forsakes her faith despite the horrors around her. Even more impressive are the thirteen courtesans of Nanjing: played with equal parts charm, grace, and mystery, the film immediately shatters the stereotypes of the prostitutes as loose women and instead shows the immense strength and dignity needed to survive in their profession. In this respect, ‘The Flowers of War’ on the class divisions in modern society and how they are ultimately based on shallow biases.
The film is also brilliantly made from a technical standpoint. All of the battle scenes outside show a perfectly recreated Nanjing, with buildings torn to rubble and the streets blackened with charred ruins and ash. Not since ‘The Pianist’ in 2003 has a city destroyed in the chaos of war been shown so graphically on screen. The battle scenes are also suitably tense and uncomfortable; Zhang’s direction always keeps a sense of restraint in the picture, preserving the horrific nature of the events rather than letting the action assume a glamorous Hollywood feel. Even the camera film itself is smudged and grainy, giving a further sense of grittiness and danger to the picture.
Unlike ‘City of Life and Death’, a previous Chinese film on Nanjing, ‘The Flowers of War’ is ultimately an uplifting movie about the innate compassion and beauty within the human soul. It is a film of sacrifice, of courage in the face of adversity, and most importantly, how social barriers between people are ultimately meaningless when people are united together under a common cause. Clearly, Zhang Yimou has a long and fulfilling career ahead of him yet to look forward to.
‘The Flowers of War’ is currently screening in Hong Kong.