Artful depiction of awful history
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan 20, 2012
You might say Zhang Yimou's shrapnel-strewn saga "The Flowers of War" has a little bit of everything: action and romance, suspense and intrigue. The only thing missing is restraint.
Melodrama is often a key ingredient in wartime drama, but the sobering, unthinkable events that occurred during the Rape of Nanking (now called Nanjing) after the 1937 Japanese invasion of the Chinese Nationalist capital don't need to be dressed up and paraded out; they speak powerfully on their own stark terms.
As the movie (a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign film) opens, Japanese soldiers have just overtaken the city, and schoolgirls attempting to return to their convent duck trigger-happy enemies, who will blast and bayonet anything that moves. American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale), who turns out to be an alcoholic cad, is also headed toward the cathedral to bury a recently deceased priest. What he finds when he arrives is abandoned children in need of supervision. What he wants is money, although Communion wine will do.
The church is a designated safe zone, so a group of prostitutes from the nearby red-light district also seeks the cathedral's refuge. After forcing themselves inside, the women make the church's secret basement feel like home, with feather-trimmed satin robes, incense and fancy lingerie. The schoolgirls are not amused by this, while John is predictably pleased. But when the motley crew ends up under the watchful eye of Japanese soldiers purporting to protect them, the group struggles to escape the city.
As one might expect from the director of such visual stimuli as "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," Yimou knows his way around a memorable image. "Flowers" has an inordinate number of artful depictions that attach themselves to a viewer's mind: a close-up of strings on a Chinese instrument snapping, each unleashing a discordant twang; John hiding under a mountain of flour, invisible except for his blinking eyes; the girls peering through the cracks in the cathedral's colorful rose window, which sends out vibrant streams of light.
But all the arresting images in the world can't overcome the story, which seems to exist in a far-fetched reality where grown women giggle and joke while bombs explode nearby, a money-hungry pig transforms himself instantaneously into a selfless father figure and people leave a safe haven under implausible circumstances, willing to face evil for guitar strings. In these cases, it's simpler to shake one's head in disbelief than hang it in sorrow.
While powerful images and suspense are among the film's strong suits, even those elements lose their cachet during the overlong finale. It's as if the story gets in the way of artful filmmaking, which is a tragedy for the movie but also a disservice to history that adds cinematic carnage to a horrific turn of events.
Contains brutal violence, rape and strong language. In Mandarin, Japanese and English with English subtitles.