REVIEW: Christian Bale May Be the Star, But Zhang Yimou Puts Women at Heart of Flowers of War
The great Fifth Generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou has gone from having films like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern banned in his homeland of China to directing the lavish opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, his more recent work taking place in the safer territory of the grandiose historical melodrama of Curse of the Golden Flower and the Nicholas Sparks-worthy sentimentality of Under the Hawthorn Tree. Zhang has insisted that he's not interested in politics, a tack that certainly seems to have its benefits: With an estimated budget of around $90 million, The Flowers of War is one of the most, if not the most, expensive Chinese production to date, it stars Christian Bale and it's China's Oscar submission. But that doesn't mean that Zhang's latest output should be dismissed offhand as nationalist propaganda.
That the accusation's been tossed at The Flowers of War, a big, button-pushing, brutally effective World War II-era drama, may be due to unfamiliarity with the atrocity during which it's set -- the Nanjing Massacre, during which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and tens of thousands raped by Japanese soldiers after the capturing of the city in December of 1937. It's a horrific incident that remains relatively unexplored in popular culture, though Iris Chang's bestselling book The Rape of Nanking, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's 2007 documentary Nanking, and Lu Chuan's excellent City of Life and Death, which played in a few U.S. theaters last year, have brought it recent attention. Given that the massacre remains a painful point in China-Japan relations, and that certain far-right Japanese ultranationalists (like Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara) like to claim the massacre never took place and was invented to tarnish the image of Japan, it's surprising that the Japanese soldiers don't come off even less one-dimensional in Zhang's film.
The Flowers of War starts off with less context than I've given above, offering up a title card about "an especially dark chapter in human history" before dropping right into a destroyed Nanjing through which a scattering of schoolgirls runs, looking for shelter. Also scurrying through the wreckage and the piles of bodies is John Miller (Bale), an American mortician hired to bury the head of the local Catholic cathedral. While the ragged remains of the Chinese forces, led by Major Li (Tong Dawei), exchange fire with the Japanese troops, John discovers to his dismay that only students remain at the church -- a group of adolescent convent girls and George (Huang Tianyuan), the orphan boy trying to serve as their caretaker. Finding no money for his fee, John settles into the late Father Engleman's quarters to get trashed on Communion wine when a group of prostitutes arrives at the gates, having been promised sanctuary by the church's cook, long since fled.
Bale's presence in the film is a kind of misdirect, a calculated element intended to better its international commercial prospects -- his character makes a clumsily predictable journey from cynical drunken expat to hero willing to sacrifice a chance to escape the country in order to care for the children who've ended up in his charge. It's the relationship between the famous "women of the Qinhuai River" and the frightened, sheltered girls that's the stealthy heart of the film, the prostitutes sauntering in like brightly plumed birds and taking over the basement despite the protests of the cathedral's scandalized remaining inhabitants, settling in to gamble and gossip.
Yu Mo (Zhang discovery Ni Ni), the "top girl," sets out to seduce John, knowing that as a Westerner he'll be spared by the invading troops and might be able to help them escape. Meanwhile, the girls' experience is filtered through Shujuan (Zhang Xinyi), who refused to leave the city without her schoolmates, and whose father (Cao Kefan) is now working for the Japanese in order to stay nearby. Despite the church's supposedly being protected, Japanese soldiers break down the door ("We're got virgins!" one yells), and it's only due to the intervention of Major Li, hiding nearby, that the girls are spared gang rape and that only two are left dead.
The Flowers of War never errs on the side of the overly nuanced -- a soaring chorus accompanies moments of grace, and beyond a setup based on the looming threat of sexual violence to 12-year-old girls, the film features multiple characters sacrificing themselves to protect the youngsters, from Major Li, who fends off a platoon singlehandedly in an over-the-top but masterfully shot action sequence, to John, in his trek toward redemption, to the prostitutes, who end up offering themselves in the place of the children. A particularly harsh digression in which two of the latter travel back to their brothel to retrieve precious items they left there seems included only to reinforce the terrible fate awaiting any women who fall into the hands of the Japanese soldiers. Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), is the lone Japanese officer who's not portrayed as a complete savage, though he's still bound to follow orders, no matter how distasteful.
But while it's as blunt as any typical big-budget war epic would be, the film finds plenty of moments in which Zhang's skill as a filmmaker and his deft handling and interest in female characters shines, from the way Shujuan serves as a far-too-young witness to these horrors, the camera often closing in on her gaze through a fracture in the cathedral's rose window, to a sequence in which John cuts the prostitutes' hair as they sleep (he knows how to work on people only when they're lying down), so that they rise fresh-faced, with schoolgirl bobs. The enchantment with which the film views the Qinhuai ladies goes beyond any simple hookers-with-hearts-of-gold conceit -- an imagined moment in which they sing while strolling through the church finds in them a magic that circumvents the victimization of their circumstances, a vision of lost decadence amidst the devastation.