The Flowers of War
Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Huang Tianyuan
Director: Zhang Yimou
Category: IIB (English, Putonghua, Japanese and Nanjing Chinese)
One of cinema's most brilliant artists commits a celluloid atrocity in The Flowers of War, a technically accomplished but thoroughly repugnant dramatisation of Japan's brutal invasion of Nanjing in December 1937.
'The Rape of Nanking' has proved fodder for numerous motion pictures, most recently Lu Chuan's creditable City of Life and Death (2009).
In taking on the subject, Zhang Yimou has given it a pictorial flourish befitting the most gargantuan budget in Chinese movie history, and an unprecedented focus on the international market by placing Oscar-winning Christian Bale at its centre.
The script by Liu Heng is bereft of emotional nuance and out-of-synch with the spirit of its milieu, going instead for broad sentimental strokes, stereotypical portrayals, and a generic view of wartime depravity. Not that the picture stints on displays of violence and cruelty, but does so in such a way that turns these into obvious devices with little resonance beyond the confines of the silver screen.
This is in large part emphasised by the preposterousness of the saga's core character: John Miller (Christian Bale) is a hard-drinking, hard-living American mortician incongruously resident in China - not that we ever learn a thing about his background - whom the war unconvincingly transforms into a saint. Bale is all over the place in his over-the-top impersonation.
It's as if Zhang just let the British actor improvise as he saw fit, ad-libbing clumsy English dialogue as the cameras rolled.
The Chinese cast comports itself far better than Bale, and the plot possesses plenty of unrealised potential on both a narrative and a moral level. The latter aspect is disappointingly handled despite the bulk of the action occurring within the confines of the Catholic cathedral that becomes a fraught haven to a flock of convent girls and floozies. Notable among the refugees is a bespectacled orphan boy (Huang Tianyuan), a teenage student (Zhang Xinyi), whose narration unites the story, and a bordello beauty (Ni Ni, above with Bale) seemingly inspired by Marlene Dietrich's Shanghai Lily (from 1932's Shanghai Express).
On the political front, The Flowers of War breaks new ground by endowing the narrator's father (Cao Kefan), a hapless Japanese collaborator with greater sympathy and subtlety than has ever before transpired in Chinese features.
But the film's laudable aspects are negated by a superficiality that trivialises one of the darkest chapters of the Sino-Japanese war, one whose after effects continue to fester into the 21st century both off-screen and on.
The Flowers of War opens on Jan 19