The mainland China film industry has a lot riding on Zhang Yimou’s historical epic The Flowers of War: the reported $94 million budget makes it the most expensive Chinese production to date, while it also aims to establish links with the Hollywood star system by casting Christian Bale in the lead role and has been selected as China’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards. An adaptation of the novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing by Geling Yan, the film seeks to stir national sentiment with a fictional story set against the horrific backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It also intends to promote Chinese cinema on the world stage through the presence of Bale, whose star appeal in China is debatable as Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Fighter (2010) did not receive state-approved theatrical releases, although pirate DVDs are easily obtainable. In commercial terms, it would seem that this calculated gamble has paid off, as The Flowers of War has lead the end-of-year box office race against tough competition from the Jet Li extravaganza Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) and is on track to at least recoup its production outlay from the local market. Yet, although all the elements for a global blockbuster have been assembled (serious subject matter with a credible leading man under the direction of a prestige filmmaker), The Flowers of War may struggle internationally due to an awkward mixture of violent battle scenes, tear-jerking melodrama and less-than-subtle symbolism.
Events take place during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when the then-capital of China was overrun by Japanese troops, resulting in an official estimate of 300,000 casualties. As the remaining Chinese soldiers take a futile last stand against the Japanese army, cynical American mortician John Miller (Bale) attempts to make his way across the city to conduct a burial at a European church. Taking refuge in the House of the Lord on the assumption that it is ‘safe’ from the conflict, John samples the wine supply, ignoring the pleas of orphan boy George (Huang Tianyuan) and the young female students to help them escape. Also in search of sanctuary is a group of high-class prostitutes who take up residence in the church basement after losing their brothel; John instantly takes a liking to their assertive leader Yu Mo (Ni Ni), but she rejects his drunken advances. When the Japanese troops storm the church, threatening to rape the girls, John is forced to take a stand, donning robes and pretending to be the priest in order to ensure their safety. Yet he is only able to arrange a temporary respite: Japanese Lieutenant Kato (Shigeo Kobayashi) informs him that the convent choir must perform at the military victory celebration, a ‘ceremony’ which will likely degenerate into rape and murder. John attempts to repair the church truck in order to get the students out of Nanjing, but saving the thirteen girls may entail sacrificing the prostitutes, causing the American to experience a moral dilemma.
Despite its ultimately damaging flaws, The Flowers of War is certainly not a complete failure, and the story retains interest even when lapses in credibility or narrative momentum undermine its worthy intentions. Zhang, the figurehead of China’s Fifth Generation, remains a consummate craftsman and his attention to detail is evident throughout, although this is a war that has been filtered through his romanticised lens: streets clouded in smog, desperate figures running through rubble, the glamour of the prostitutes who sashay up to the church in their colourful garments and overrule objections to entry by throwing their luggage over the wall. The battle scenes are well-staged, with the supporting Chinese character of Major Li (Tong Dawai), almost inhabiting his own film, guarding the church by taking out Japanese troops from a distance until John realises that he needs to take on the role of protector. There are some concessions to modern action filmmaking with soldiers dying in slow-motion after being shot in the head and rapid-fire edits, but Zhang also builds tension with John and Major Li at times trapped in confined space as they respectively hide out or get the enemy in sniper range. Accusations of propaganda could be made regarding the film’s depiction of Japanese soldiers as savages – only one rape is shown but their intentions are indicated through the attempted raid on the church that includes the predatory line, ‘We’ve got virgins’. However, Zhang mostly concentrates on the unfolding human drama rather than the atrocities that are being committed.
The premise is effectively established with the church serving as a meeting point for various social levels that must work together at a time of crisis: the convent girls, the prostitutes, and the outsider who could take the last boat out or risk his life to help those in need. Contrasts are clearly evoked through behaviour and dress (the devout convent girls in their simple uniforms, the sinful prostitutes in their luxurious fashions), but later prove problematic as one group agrees to be sacrificed for the other, calling into question the film’s humanistic stance. Bale is a solid centre, even though his character is straight out of a screenwriting handbook (the disillusioned vagabond who develops a conscience in a short space of time) and works well with a supporting cast of unknowns. Yet their efforts cannot overcome the script deficiencies of the final act, which is where The Flowers of War falters. Zhang ensures escape or redemption for everyone with a series of scenes that substitute sacrifice for suspense: the prostitutes prepare to take the place of the convent girls and get nice make-overs from the mortician to convince the Japanese troops with Zhang framing this ‘transformation’ as a spiritual fashion show against stained-glass windows. The result is a film that starts out like Saving Private Ryan (1998) with its battleground recreation then turns into an attempt at a Chinese equivalent of Schindler’s List (1993). Sadly, the contrivances taken en route prevent The Flowers of War from realising its considerable potential.