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 saccha

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.