Zhang Yimou’s penchant for over-the-top melodrama has served him well in such epic historical dramas as “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” as well as in those films (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou”) that solidified his reputation as a leading light of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers. He has also made smaller, more intimate films like “Not One Less” and “The Road Home.” Unfortunately, Zhang’s melodramatic excesses exceed his grasp in “The Flowers of War.”
The film takes place on December 13, 1937, right after the Japanese Imperial Army captures the Chinese city of Nanking, the former capital of China, leading to what became known as the “Rape of Nanking” and the “Nanking Massacre” where, according to historians and human rights organizations, close to 300,00 people were killed and the number of women raped by the Japanese is estimated at 20,000 (although the actual number remains a point of contention between China and Japan). As “The Flowers of War” opens, a group of 13-year-old girls led by George (Huan Tyanyuan), are trying to make their way to the city’s Catholic cathedral amidst the gunfire and explosions erupting around them. A lone drunk American, John Miller (Christian Bale), is also trying to make his way to this sanctuary. A small group of Chinese soldiers is the last line of defense for these girls and any other survivors. These initial scenes are as harrowing as any seen in recent war films: bloody, tense, cruel, horrific.
Miller, a mortician, upon seeing that his services are no longer needed at the cathedral, soon raids the building’s wine cellars, sleeps on the now-deceased priest’s bed and turns a deaf ears to George’s pleas to help them escape. But you know that, eventually, John will have a change of heart. Why? Because he is an American and he is white and because the plot mechanics of any good or mediocre melodrama dictate that drunken, uncaring cads like him are, deep down, good, honest and brave.
The group is soon joined by more than a dozen, loud and well-dressed prostitutes who take over the basement, originally designed as a hiding place for the girls. Watching over them from outside is a guardian angel in the form of the last surviving Chinese soldier who watches over the cathedral, knowing darn well that the girls inside are at risk.
Miller’s decision to disrespectfully wear priest’s clothes later proves a blessing in disguise but not before Japanese soldiers, completely disregarding any international agreements (and Miller’s religious attire), break into the cathedral and attempt to rape the 13-year-old girls while the prostitutes cower in the basement. The Chinese soldier’s sharpshooting saves the day but he is promptly dispatched.
A Japanese commander soon appears on the doorstep to apologize. And, wouldn’t you know it, he is a cultured soldier who appreciates music. But an invitation for the girls to perform at a Japanese high command shindig spells doom for the girls, and soon Miller and the prostitutes with a heart of gold concoct a hardly credible plan to save their lives. Sacrifices will be made, tears will be shed and violins will play their mournful tune.
Do not expect any major insights about the tragedy in Nanking. Zhang Yimou and scriptwriter Liu Heng are far more interested in pulling your heartstrings through any means or plot contrivances necessary. In that regards, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg’s “War Horse.” They both rely on archetypal characters, and on an excessively and sometimes laughable musical score to manipulate your emotions. The only difference: Spielberg at least portrayed his film’s German characters as well-rounded characters. (Spielberg, by the way, helped convince Bale to take on the role of Miller.) And even though “The Flowers of War” is beautifully photographed and the attention to detail is fantastic, these visual assets do now compensate for the overcooked, badly written melodrama.
While there is no denying the horror of what happened in Nanking, “The Flowers of War” reeks of old-fashioned propaganda, where the Japanese are uni-dimensional demons and America and China are seen as virtuous partners who can overcome such evil. No wonder the Chinese government chose “The Flower of Wars” to represent them in the competition for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Fortunately, the members of the Academy, unlike the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, were not fooled by the big star name and did not choose it as a finalist.