Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Xinyi Zhang, Tianyuan Huang, Dawei Tong, Atsuro Watabe
Rated R for Strong Violence including a Sexual Assault, Disturbing Images and Brief Strong Language
"The Flowers of War" is by turns thrilling, plodding, heartwrenching, ridiculous, moving, contrived and beautiful. Most movies are either good or bad. Rarely do they veer into both territories with such consistency as they do here.
In 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan overruns the Chinese city of Nanking, where they proceeded to rape and slaughter 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians. "The Flowers of War," based on the novella by Genling Yan (which was in turn inspired by the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, who witnessed the atrocities), tells the story of John Miller (Bale), a mortician sent into Nanking to bury a priest. But the drunken boor of man has the bad luck of getting there when things have turned to hell. He takes refuge in a church with a bunch of schoolgirls, and later, a group of courtesans. Now, he has to decide whether to be selfish and flee the first chance he gets, or risk his life to save two groups of women (and one boy) who, without him, could only hope for a quick death.
Let's start with the good. The action scenes are well done. It's not at the level of "Enemy at the Gates," a film which this bears a few similarities (albeit superficial ones), but they get the job done. Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou chooses a more cinematic approach rather than a documentary one. Which is fine, considering that had he gone the latter route and held nothing back, the film would have been in danger of getting an NC-17. As it is, it goes without saying that this is not a film for children, no matter how much they love Batman. One of the many plus sides of this approach is that it allows the audience to appreciate the cleverness of a certain Chinese soldier who takes it upon himself to protect those in the church. His plan is inventive and truly badass, but stops just short of Rube Goldberg. There are also some moments, particularly in the first and third acts that have real power.
Now, let's get to the bed. This is the most obvious instance of a "white savior" narrative in quite some time. This cliché, where a white man has to go into a conflict and/or takes it upon himself to rescue someone of a different race, can be justified with strong writing or plot (see "Blood Diamond" or "Amistad" for an example of how to do this right). That doesn't apply here. John's entrance into the story is contrived, and so is his character arc. The writing isn't there, and surprisingly, neither is Bale. He's adequate, but there are times at the beginning where he is more obnoxious than endearing. The plot is also weak, at times relying on poorly motivated action or characters behaving with such stupidity that in a movie like this it becomes despicable.
Aside from Bale, who is uneven, there are some nice performances. Chief among them is Ni Ni, a Chinese actress who plays Yu Mo, the leader of the courtesans. While not as captivating as Zhang Yimou's other muses, Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang (which begs the question why neither one appears in this film), she has her own alluring talent and charisma that makes her the most memorable member of the cast. Xinyi Zhang is fine as the underdeveloped Shu, who's narration indicates that this is told in flashback. It's largely unnecessary, but it does add a bit of emotional weight to the proceedings. Dawei Tong and Atsuro Watabe are also very good as the aforementioned soldier and a Japanese commander.
This is a much better film from Zhang Yimou than "The Great Wall," his most recent attempt to reach a world audience. Considering how awful that monstrosity was, that's not much of a compliment. It's too long with a screenplay that could have used another rewrite, particularly in the case of Bale's character. Yet there are some scenes that do land, such as a harrowing attack on the church were the schoolgirls are chased after by soldiers with rape on their minds. A particularly vicious rape scene also be worth mentioning had the circumstances leading up to it had not been so preposterous and stupid. But the end contains some real heart and is genuinely moving.
"The Flowers of War" is like that. Some of it is good, some of it is awful. It's a tough call, but if I had to choose, my thumb would be up. Especially considering that you can watch it on Netflix.