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What a Production: Nanjing Massacre as Showstopper in Flowers of War

Zhang Yimou was an ideal choice to be chief director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies. With recent movies like House of Flying Daggers and Hero, the Chinese filmmaker of Raise the Red Lantern has proven of late to be a man more enamored of spectacle than characters. So it was no surprise that those Summer Games ceremonies were expertly choreographed, with large groups of people functioning as cogs in a grand visual pageantry. Zhang extends his track record with his latest film, the period war epic The Flowers of War (China's Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film)—it's just those darn flesh-and-blood humans that trip him up.

Based on a novel by Yan Geling, The Flowers of War is set during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, which saw the invading Japanese army overrun the then-Chinese capital, killing an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese and raping approximately 20,000 women. Zhang's film uses the atrocity as a backdrop for a dully inspirational story about John Miller (Christian Bale), a self-centered American mortician who becomes the unlikely protector of some Chinese children seeking refuge in a Catholic church within the devastated city. Confined inside the church while war still rages outside, Miller and a cadre of prostitutes (led by Ni Ni) know that the virgin girls will become sexual targets of the soldiers if they can't figure out a way to ensure their escape.

The Flowers of War is the second Chinese film that grapples with Nanjing to be released stateside this year. The other, Lu Chuan's superb City of Life and Death, made its horrors resonate thanks to its restrained, humanistic approach. Far less successfully, The Flowers of War takes the opposite tack, as Zhang indulges in showy camerawork and melodramatic slow motion that punctuates every opulent burst of blood spurting from a bullet wound. Bale (who recently made headlines when he was assaulted by Chinese guards while trying to visit imprisoned human rights activist Chen Guangcheng) gives a fully invested performance as an opportunist who grows a conscience, but ultimately, his road to redemption feels like the faint echo of a similar arc in Schindler's List—though at least his character is allowed some depth, unlike Evil Japanese Colonel or Alluring Hooker/Love Interest.

With City of Life and Death, you felt immersed in a hellish nightmare, a fitting way to memorialize a horrendous historical event. With The Flowers of War, Zhang mostly just proves that there's no tragedy too terrible that it can't be turned into an operatic pageant—human suffering reduced to visual showmanship.

 
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2 comments
Weiwang588
Weiwang588

I watched the documentary about how the movie was made. It was amazing how much effort they put in this movie. You should watch it before making comments.

seansarto
seansarto

Such an astonishing lack of depth...I applaud Yimou's early works...but this shamelessly caters to modern sensibilities at the expense of historical facts...So according to this film all Chinese women want to be whores....and the archtype American is a F*ck up drunk looking for a good time who "stumbles" into heroism..But the Chinese soldier is brave as hell....It is beguiling why Christian Bale would rather honor a paycheck over giving dignity or face to the missionaries who were in Nanking...Even "The City of Life and Death" (2009 Lu Chuan) does a greater service to the story of those who suffered such a horrible atrocity. Absolutely disgraceful. Eye candy for the fast and furiously f*ckin' stupid crowd....The only element that is not discredited here are the soldiers... the Chinese are given the soldierly trait of bravery and the Japanese are given brutality....I wish Zhang Yimou was smart enough to mock whomever lauds this kind of crap..But he's old I guess and his collaborations with Hollywood have been complete sell-outs of crass commercialism. His earlier works show much more delicacy and humanity than this gutter, street trash machismo. I saw this in China too...Where it is more expensive than the other films playing...i guess to pay for Bale's sorry ass... ("Christian" get it!)...I bet that ahole didn't even research the role...because he acted it like was acting like a drunken 20 year old you see all too often in Shanghai thee days...HE WAS TERRIBLE...Mayb that's how did his research...he went on a sex tour (with all the real whores of today who want to seem “heroic” in their crass commercialism) and bar crawl in the hot Beijing clubs..Douche bags.

 

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