Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: The Flowers of War

Epic tale of young women desperate to survive the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937. China's Oscar entry for Best Foreign-Language Film offers powerfully realistic and inventive war scenes. Alas, some of the dialogue may register as a bit too saccharine for Western ears.

Dec 20, 2011

-By Bruce Feld


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1299928-Flowers_War_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

The horrendous assault of Japanese troops in late 1937, which came to be known as the Rape of Nanking, caused the deaths of over 200,000 Chinese. The list of atrocities is endless and no film to date presents them in more harrowing fashion than director Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War.

Its opening sequence, in which an outmanned Chinese unit fights rifles-against-tanks to save a few endangered women, is as blunt as it is brutal. Hard-drinking American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) is introduced, fleeing the same Japanese units and, through some miraculous accidents, finding his way to a battered but still-standing cathedral whose Red Cross flag theoretically protects the inhabitants.

Adapted by Liu Heng from the novel by Yan Geling, The Flowers of War offers two distinct species of "flowers”: One group consists of beautiful courtesans on the run, while the other encompasses cloistered schoolgirls who sing in the church choir and who deeply mourn the recent death of their Catholic priest. To save both the prostitutes and the adolescent girls—who recoil from any association with fallen angels—Miller must put on the Father's black robes and emulate priestly behavior. Gradually, he acquires a new dignity and compassion. He stops trying to bed the sultry leader of the courtesans, Yo Mo (Ni Ni), and begins to treat her like the clever, formidable survivor that she is.

In the second act, momentum slows and sections of dialogue seem incongruously sentimental. However, if one is willing to extend imagination and allow that centuries of Chinese tradition permit raw emotions to be expressed in the midst of blunt catastrophe, then these speeches may be accepted as part of ancient Chinese mores surviving to present day. Considering Zhang's profound understanding of his country's national characteristics, the lyrical passages have a legitimate place. Contrasting with them are ruthless military sequences—especially a scene in which a single Chinese soldier wipes out an entire Japanese squad. This should be reality enough for most viewers. Audiences should be dazzled by Zhang's skill and inventiveness.

Still, The Flowers of War’s primary concern is first and foremost brutality against women in wartime. Saving as many of them as possible is the thrust of the action. The motivation for Miller to become a better man—in spite of Bale's yeoman efforts—is not always clear, largely the result of the script's weakness. If there are too many plot contrivances, there are also a number of startling surprises that render the film theatrically potent.

Overall, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding's vision is simply magnificent; costume designer William Chang Suk-Ping's work is impeccable; and Tao Jing's sound design makes a major contribution to the film's undeniable impact. The Flowers of War will likely be remembered as a triumph of the genre.


Film Review: The Flowers of War

Epic tale of young women desperate to survive the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937. China's Oscar entry for Best Foreign-Language Film offers powerfully realistic and inventive war scenes. Alas, some of the dialogue may register as a bit too saccharine for Western ears.

Dec 20, 2011

-By Bruce Feld


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1299928-Flowers_War_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

The horrendous assault of Japanese troops in late 1937, which came to be known as the Rape of Nanking, caused the deaths of over 200,000 Chinese. The list of atrocities is endless and no film to date presents them in more harrowing fashion than director Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War.

Its opening sequence, in which an outmanned Chinese unit fights rifles-against-tanks to save a few endangered women, is as blunt as it is brutal. Hard-drinking American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) is introduced, fleeing the same Japanese units and, through some miraculous accidents, finding his way to a battered but still-standing cathedral whose Red Cross flag theoretically protects the inhabitants.

Adapted by Liu Heng from the novel by Yan Geling, The Flowers of War offers two distinct species of "flowers”: One group consists of beautiful courtesans on the run, while the other encompasses cloistered schoolgirls who sing in the church choir and who deeply mourn the recent death of their Catholic priest. To save both the prostitutes and the adolescent girls—who recoil from any association with fallen angels—Miller must put on the Father's black robes and emulate priestly behavior. Gradually, he acquires a new dignity and compassion. He stops trying to bed the sultry leader of the courtesans, Yo Mo (Ni Ni), and begins to treat her like the clever, formidable survivor that she is.

In the second act, momentum slows and sections of dialogue seem incongruously sentimental. However, if one is willing to extend imagination and allow that centuries of Chinese tradition permit raw emotions to be expressed in the midst of blunt catastrophe, then these speeches may be accepted as part of ancient Chinese mores surviving to present day. Considering Zhang's profound understanding of his country's national characteristics, the lyrical passages have a legitimate place. Contrasting with them are ruthless military sequences—especially a scene in which a single Chinese soldier wipes out an entire Japanese squad. This should be reality enough for most viewers. Audiences should be dazzled by Zhang's skill and inventiveness.

Still, The Flowers of War’s primary concern is first and foremost brutality against women in wartime. Saving as many of them as possible is the thrust of the action. The motivation for Miller to become a better man—in spite of Bale's yeoman efforts—is not always clear, largely the result of the script's weakness. If there are too many plot contrivances, there are also a number of startling surprises that render the film theatrically potent.

Overall, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding's vision is simply magnificent; costume designer William Chang Suk-Ping's work is impeccable; and Tao Jing's sound design makes a major contribution to the film's undeniable impact. The Flowers of War will likely be remembered as a triumph of the genre.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

War Story
Film Review: War Story

Infuriatingly slow, enervating and basically empty contemplation of war's impact, and a waste of the formidable talent of a gallant Catherine Keener. More »

Happy Christmas
Film Review: Happy Christmas

Joe Swanberg's latest feature is a collection of strong individual scenes and performances that never quite finds its statement of purpose. More »

Very Good Girls
Film Review: Very Good Girls

More of a meandering, misguided path than a road to hell, Naomi Foner’s directing debut, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen as 18-year-old BFFs, is similarly filled with good intentions. More »

The Kill Team
Film Review: The Kill Team

Marine Adam Winfield goes on trial in a case in which U.S. soldiers murdered innocent Afghanis. Strong subject marred by poor narrative choices. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Get On Up
Film Review: Get On Up

Chadwick Boseman is sensational in this multi-faceted portrait of troubled, pioneering soul-music giant James Brown. More »

Guardians of the Galaxy review
Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

With Marvel’s backing, cult filmmaker James Gunn blasts off for the stars and takes audiences along for a wild, funny ride. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here