In The Flowers of War, director Zhang Yimou revisits the Sino-Japanese war of Nanking to tell the “true life” account of an unlikely group of individuals trying to survive the war in the sanctuary of a church. The film sees Academy Award Winner Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises, The Fighter) take the lead role as John Miller, a self-serving, slightly lecherous American mortician, hired by a local church to oversee the funeral of its priest. The church compound, the main setting for most of the movie, is home to a group of terrified schoolgirls. As events unfold, it becomes apparent as to why the Rape of Nanking is so named: Japanese soldiers break into the church intent on raping the schoolgirls. Miller, dressed as a man of the cloth, pretends to be the priest in order to save them from the brutality of the Japanese soldiers. Their reprieve is short-lived when a Japanese commander comes to the church to listen to the school girls’ choral arrangements. He tells Miller to have them ready for a special party for the Japanese soldiers, which means the girls are fated to become more casualties in the rape of Nanking. To complicate the story further, unbeknown to the Japanese and hiding in the basement of the church is a brothel’s worth of beautiful prostitutes, who are the “flowers” of the film’s title. Both Miller and the prostitutes are initially portrayed as lacking in any moral character; yet through all the film’s complications, with back-stories weighing down an already heavy-laden plot, the self-sacrifice of the prostitutes saves the school girls their fate.
In many ways, Zhang continues in the tradition of his other epic films, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, imparting grandeur and artistry to tell a remarkable story of redemption, selflessness and sacrifice. The film calls to mind Saving Private Ryan in its candid portrayal of the violence of war violence. Wide panoramic views pulling into close ups, acting much like the intimacy of a first person perspective. There is also a lot of slow motion editing depicting bullets and exploding buildings ripping through soldiers and civilians; brutal murders and semi-explicit raping further expose the horrors of war. Although the film’s levels of violence and gore are probably more graphic than usual, you never get the impression that these are too graphic or gratuitous. This is perhaps due to Zhang’s brilliance as a visual artist.
If we are to measure this film solely on its image-making, we are going to be hard pressed to find anything else this year that scales these heights. Anyone who knows Zhang’s previous work will already be familiar with his masterful use of colour to create an atmosphere. Consider the work of House of Flying Daggers, scale it up to the biggest budget in Chinese history ($95 million); it then becomes easy to see why The Flowers of War can afford to be picture perfect. The juxtaposition of vibrant colour set against monochromatic ash and rubble creates a startling juxtaposition that allows the audience to experience both the ugliness and beauty that exists within humanity. For those wanting a great-looking and entertaining film, and for those who get simple pleasure from the development of an unlikely hero, this might be just the film for you. But where artistry might steer a course confidently, ordinary punters will find the film’s artistic licence a bit of smokescreen if they seek historical accuracy.