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Review: The Flowers of War (2012)

The Flowers of War (2012)

Directed by: Yimou Zhang

Premise: Set during the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanking, a group of schoolgirls and prostitutes take shelter in a church while an American businessman (Christian Bale) poses as a priest.

What Works: The Flowers of War is an impressive story of wartime survival. The picture opens with chaotic action akin to the D-Day invasion of Saving Private Ryan and it comes close to that picture’s intensity. This is a very tough movie with visceral scenes of combat. The shootouts and chases are well done with cinematography and editing that are quick but not so frantic as to lose the viewer. The Flowers of War was directed by Yimou Zhang and this film is of a different style than his other pictures. Films like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower were much more stylized with wirework-heavy fight scenes and formalistic camera techniques. The Flowers of War takes a gritty, realistic approach and it is much more akin to action and war pictures from Western filmmakers. The change in style is appropriate given the tone of the story. Where Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower were very operatic stories about betrayal, honor, and family drama, The Flowers of War is set within a realistic historical event and it focuses on the horrors of warfare. As grueling as some of the combat scenes are, The Flowers of War is most disturbing in its violence against women. The schoolgirls and the prostitutes become the targets of Japanese soldiers and in a particularly grueling scene a group of men invade the church with the intent of assaulting the students. The unflinching presentation of the violence is appropriate for the style of the film and admirable in a specific artistic sense in the same way that Amistad is admirable for realizing the horrors of slavery or how the filmmakers of The Accused confronted the audience with the ugliness of sexual assault. The invasion of Nanking, sometimes referred to as “The Rape of Nanking,” is one of the foremost travesties of humanity of the twentieth century and the filmmakers of The Flowers of War set a compelling story within it. The Flowers of War is primarily a siege film and the body of its story is about how those caught in the crossfire manage to survive, sometimes by compromising themselves but also by rising to the occasion. That ends up being the most surprising thing about this film. War movies are often about the deterioration of people’s moral fortitude but The Flowers of War tells a story about people finding their moral compass amidst genocide. It ends up being an uplifting film but because of the intensity of the violence that uplift comes with a cost that makes it authentic and credible.

What Doesn’t: The Flowers of War is in some ways a compromised film, and this is most visible in the picture’s fragmented point of view. Christian Bale is cast as an American businessman who assumes the identity of a priest and on the outset the film establishes Bale as the point of view character. This choice is problematic. Without diminishing Bale’s performance, which is quite good, casting a white Hollywood star was clearly done to appeal to Western audiences but it has the impact of “Americanizing” the story; the occupation of Nanking is an important piece of Chinese and Japanese history but the filmmakers of The Flowers of War conform it to fit through Western eyes. As the film goes on the point of view becomes more complicated, with voiceover indicating that this is really the story of the schoolgirl played by Zhang Xinyi. As a result the filmmakers seem confused about whose story this is. In the similar way, The Flowers of War is problematic because of its portrayal of the Japanese, which is very one-dimensional and very negative. That is understandable given the circumstances depicted here, but scenes like the church invasion are so overwhelming that the movie goes over-the-top, much like the portrayal of British soldiers in Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary War film The Patriot.

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: The Flowers of War is a tough movie but a good one. It has significant shortcomings but as a historical drama and a war film it is very well made. At the very least this may be an accessible introduction for Western viewers to enter into Asian cinema.

Episode: #418 (December 9, 2012)