This is one I’ve got to be as upfront as possible about: stories dealing with the atrocities involved in the brief Japanese invasion of Nanking ( China ) are NOT for everyone. If you’re unsure of the incident long referred to as ‘the Rape of Nanking,’ then I’d encourage you to Google it, investigate in on your own before jumping headfirst into Yimou Zhang’s THE FLOWERS OF WAR; familiarize yourself with one of history’s darkest hours in order to get a basic foundation for this story, which (as I understand) is only based on real events.
In 1937 – not long after aligning with Hitler’s Germany – Japan invaded China , and the city of Nanking was under siege for several days. Violence took the shape of unending bloodshed. Into this fray wandered John Miller (played by Christian Bale), an American trapped behind enemy lines. As a mortician, Miller was sent to embalm a deceased Catholic priest; now running for his life, he takes refuge in the church, declared ‘sacred territory’ by both the fighting Japanese and Chinese soldiers. Inside, he finds a group of innocent schoolgirls as well as thirteen beautiful courtesans also secreted away from the horrors outside. In order to save them, Miller assumes the identity of a priest and demands his cathedral be respected as a sanctuary.
It’s an immensely moving performance by Bale that elevates FLOWERS. At first, Miller appears little more than a jaded opportunist. At every turn, he demands payment for his services to the Church, despite the fact that the survivors no longer have a body needing embalming (it was destroyed in the city’s bombing campaign). After he learns that the church’s steward has no money available, he seeks to raid its wine cellar as compensation. When the courtesans seek his aid in getting out of the city, he demands sexual favors in return. However, as the story unfolds, we realize he’s perhaps as battered and broken as the residents of Nanking ; his behavior is the result of burying his young daughter several years before. It’s precisely the kind of role that Humphrey Bogart would’ve put on the map decades earlier, reminiscent of the irascible boat captain from THE AFRICAN QUEEN, but set against a much more horrific backdrop. In fact, the only problem I had whatsoever with Bale’s performance is that he delivers much of his early dialogue somewhat gutturally, making it hard to understand what he was saying.
This isn’t to dismiss the other performances. Ni Ni, in her feature film debut, shines as the head courtesan, Yu Mo , deftly navigates the layers of her delicate womanhood, at times tortured by the choices of her life while other times a confident seductress. Zhang Xinyi also delivers an exceptional performance as the lead schoolgirl whose father long ago promised to deliver her and her classmates from the impending invasion; once he forsakes them, she finds herself at odds with the students and even the courtesans whose ‘lack of morals’ she protests.
At all times, FLOWERS balances the various plotlines, all of them revolving around the themes of sacrifice and honor amongst these characters that have chosen, for better or worse, to make their last stand against insurmountable odds. There’s always the threat of unanticipated, unpredictable violence, so the tension remains high consistently. Director Yimou Zhang – who brought us the equally brilliant HERO (with Jet Li) and THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS – masterfully navigates these lives with some unforgettable cinematography that’s equally breathtaking and heartbreaking. This is the kind of picture where you know that not everyone is going to make it out alive; the true balancing act here maintaining the tension and just enough ambiguity so that the audience can’t effectively predict what’s coming … and, on that front, Zhang succeeds brilliantly. What emerges is a stirring film that deserves as wide an audience as possible.
THE FLOWERS OF WAR was produced by Beijing New Picture Film Company, EDKO Film, and New Picture Company. DVD distribution stateside is being handled by Lionsgate. The sound and picture are phenomenal – the film has some exceptional photography of the war-torn streets of Nanking – with the only exception being whoever miked Bale’s spoken words. As for special features, there is a five-part documentary ‘making of,’ but I haven’t watched it yet. I would’ve liked more – at least a commentary track from such an effective picture – but I guess that wasn’t meant to be.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Like SCHINDLER’S LIST, THE FLOWERS OF WAR is a film that broaches a very difficult subject matter – the horrible, horrific reality of service and sacrifice in war-time atrocities. Under Zhang’s direction, the topic is made entirely relatable by way of a very personal and surprisingly uplifting story. It’s a film unmistakably about survival when up against the most formidable odds, and Bale’s performance – while a bit off-putting vocally – is a centerpiece worth celebrating.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the good folks at Lionsgate provided me with a DVD screener copy of THE FLOWERS OF WAR by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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