The Flowers of War/ Jin Líng Shí Chai
Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Tong Dawei, Atsuro Watabe, Shigeo Kobayashi, Cao Kefani Club, IFI, Dublin, 146 min
MORTICIAN John Miller (Christian Bale) arrives in Nanjing to bury a Catholic priest just as invading Japanese forces are locking the city down. The American barely makes it alive to the convent where the late priest cared for orphaned girls, and is immediately dismayed to find no surviving adults and no possible payment for his efforts. He takes to the bottle as a gaggle of prostitutes led by Yu Mo (Ni Ni) scale the convent wall seeking sanctuary.
It requires a lot to inspire the drunken, cynical Miller to take a stand. But when Japanese soldiers descend upon the church seeking to rape the teenage schoolgirls, he dresses up as a priest and attempts to protect his accidental charges.
Western movie punters favour naturalism and verisimilitude even in their Batmen and fantasy franchises. Perhaps that’s why Zhang Yimou’s lush, melodramatic treatment of the Rape of Nanjing has not, outside China, attracted the attention or notices once accorded the same director’s international hits Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers.
Reassuringly, the film-maker who emerged as part of the PRC’s Fifth Generation is still capable of the grit displayed in his 1990s social realist films To Live and The Story of Qiu Ju. Accordingly, The Flowers of War is peppered with scenes depicting the horrors of corpse-lined, occupied streets and rape as military strategy.
Mostly, however, the film plumps for spectacle and soap opera: shards of stained glass scatter artfully in the shelling; an impromptu sing- song takes on the guise of a Busby Berkeley number; battle scenes marry Saving Private Ryan’s opening gambit to the balletic slow-motion of John Woo actioners. It can look tremendous, even if Zhao Xiaoding’s hyper-stylised ’90-retro cinematography sits uneasily beside relentless bloodshed and sexual violations.
A problematic script is equally hit and miss. Drawing from a novel by Geling Yan (13 Flowers of Nanjing), The Flowers of War is convoluted, coincidence-heavy and occasionally downright daft. How did a US citizen get here? Why do the prostitutes always look so pristine? Who thought that a soft-focus sex scene would add to the film? Bale, that most versatile of actors, emotes effectively but struggles with dialogue that screams 1980s TV miniseries.
Following in the footsteps of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, the sensational Ni Ni is the director’s latest muse, or “Mou Girl”. She provides another incongruously fabulous flourish in an engaging, muddled historical drama that can’t decide if it’s Come and See or “come hither”.