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.