Christian Bale has used quite a few different voices throughout his career (this is the guy who actually made Batman sound like the complete opposite of alter ego Bruce Wayne), so when he shows up in Zhang Yimou’s Chinese drama The Flowers of War, I sort of half expected Bale to start speaking in Mandarin. But no such luck in this story of an American mortician (Bale) who finds himself in a foreign land at the worst possible time. Conveniently, though, he can always find someone who knows enough English to hold a conversation. It’s 1937 and Bale’s John Miller has come to Nanjing to bury a Catholic priest, only to discover firsthand the harrowing aftermath of Japan’s destruction of the city in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Nanjing is little more than hopeless rubble, but on his journey to the deceased priest’s church, John finds the building still standing tall and capable of providing safe shelter.
He also finds a group of young girls, all convent students, who are now hiding out in the church in hopes of evading the Japanese soldiers who apparently want to do nothing but quite literally rape and pillage. Yes, the villains here are a cold, evil bunch and Zhang makes no effort to elevate them beyond the status of cartoon monsters. The bad guys are, well, really bad, and the one-dimensionality of their portrayal weakens their contribution to the conflict. Their actions are scary and sad, but the dramatic impact of their actions is undone by the artificiality with which Zhang populates the story. The villains are depicted in such laughably obvious terms that they fail to strengthen the movie’s emotional muscle, instead reducing it to floppy, flaccid flab.
So with that in mind, it’s clear the convent girls have good reason to fear leaving the church. On the other hand, John is quickly revealed to be a boozing, self-absorbed fellow who cares only for himself. He’d much rather spend time with a bottle of liquor than with actual people and now he’s surrounded by young teens who are as unimpressed with him as he is with them. If you can’t smell the redemption plot wafting from around the corner quite yet, then don’t worry, because The Flowers of War has no interest in subtlety.
Enter a group of prostitutes who are also in need of a good hiding place. Promised a spot by the church cook who recently bailed, the women eventually force their way in after all, much to the joy of John and the chagrin of the convent students. The prostitute group is a loud, colourful bunch, the heavily sexualized yin to the student group’s innocent yang. John’s just happy to see some beautiful women, so he gets to flirting right away and finds his advances rejected in favour of something far less exciting: A plot to escape the occupied city that hinges on John’s participation. Geez, this guy can’t catch a break.
Animosity between the students and the prostitutes with John in the middle gives the film the opportunity to explore conflict without having to further employ the brutally blatant Japanese soldiers, but Zhang and screenwriter Liu Heng, adapting the novel by Geling Yan, still find plenty of screen time to waste on episodic reminders of where the conflict is really coming from. Whenever the Japanese soldiers show up, it’s clear what’s about to happen. Zhang doesn’t shy away from the horrific nature of their attacks and while these sequences are unfortunately manipulative, the violence is tough and impressively executed.
In fact, all of the violence deserves attention for the sheer scope of the disturbing destruction. Budgeted just under a hundred million dollars, The Flowers of War is the most expensive movie ever made in China. And Zhang certainly knows how to put all that money on the big screen. The action sequences are loud, bloody, explosive affairs with toppling buildings and even an ill-fated tank. Zhang is no stranger to period-based action, having previously directed such battle-friendly epics as “Hero” and “Curse of the Golden Flower.” The Flowers of War brings Zhang into the 20th century and he fares pretty well with all the bullets and bayonets.
But for all of its sharp imagery and decent action editing, the movie stumbles in the people department, as the interchangeability of the cast proves troublesome. The students essentially act as one big character and the same goes for the prostitutes, though each group has an ambassador of sorts. John emerges as a singular guy simply because he doesn’t have his own group, but that doesn’t help him. Even Bale’s considerable chops prove no match for the abruptness of John’s character arc. He needs to transform on screen and he’s going to do it no matter how forced the change appears to be. The two female groups are also key players in the realization of the redemption theme and their combined arc is intriguing in its aims, but too clumsy and treacly to connect the dramatic dots in a meaningful manner.
I often find that Zhang struggles to showcase the veneer of vibrant visuals without burying the emotional pulse of his movies, but he usually comes out on top in spite of the struggle, his strengths triumphant over his weaknesses. The Flowers of War finds no such success, though, despite the devastatingly believable sets that let us glimpse a world of absolute destruction. The visuals are still the best thing about the movie, but even then, Zhang points the camera at stained glass windows one too many times, resulting in some lazy juxtaposition between the rainbow beauty of the glass and the dour debris of the crumbled city. I guess such imagery should be expected, given the title. Zhang still delivers a pretty picture, but the exaggerated acting and silly script are hurdles he cannot overcome. Perhaps The Flowers of War really could use Bale attempting his lines in Mandarin. At least then it might speak in a unique and refreshing voice.