Flowers of War: China's Oscar Entry

“The Flowers of War,” this year’s China’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and reportedly the country’s most expensive film to date (budget north of $100 million) is one of the worst works in the otherwise brilliant career of Zhang Yimou.

In his collaborations with the gorgeous looking actress Gong Li (who was his lover), Yimou has made some of the most memorable Chinese films of the past twenty years, including “Raise the Red Lantern” and “To Live.”

Add Yimou to the long list of foreign directors, who have tried to make an accessible international production that would appeal to various types of audiences. In his first role after deservedly winning the Supporting Actor Oscar last year for “The Fighter,” Christian Bale gives a broad performance that relies on tricks and mannerisms.

End result is a mishmash of a movie, a conventional, old-fashioned schmaltzy work, which, unintentionally, trivializes the 1937 Nanking tragedy, when the place was invaded by the Japanese, reduced the tale to a sentimental melodrama, containing for the most part stereotypical or one-dimensional characters..

The film begins rather well with powerful images of the effects of the brutal war by chronicling the massacres and its victims in Nanjing, which stands at the forefront of a war between China and Japan.  As the invading Japanese Imperial Army overruns China’s capital city, desperate civilians seek refuge behind the protective walls of a western cathedral.

The tale’s protagonist is John Miller (Bale), a dynamic American caught rapped amidst the chaos of battle.  Blessed with strong survival instincts, Miller helps a group of innocent schoolgirls, and later on thirteen courtesans, escape the horrors taking place outside the church walls. 

Yimou aims at telling a story of survival and redemption, how John Miller transforms himself from a boozy, irresponsible entrepreneur to a genuine hero, willing to risk his life for the sake of others by engaging in what initially seems to be a futile battle against the Japanese forces of evil.

It doesn’t help that “Flowers of War” is inspired by true life events, as Yimou has made a hodgepodge of a movie, a diffuse, sharply uneven work that boasts only few powerful moment.  The saga is adapted from Geling Yan’s historical novel “13 Flowers of Nanjing.”

There are only two fully developed figures, in addition to John Miller.  The ensemble includes 13-year-old, Zhang Xinyi, in her first film role as Shu, an innocent school girl who along with her fellow classmates is taken under Miller’s protective wing.

The other persona is George, a young boy charged with the impossible task of protecting the sanctuary and its refugees, played by the likeable newcomer Huang Tianyuan.

While the central story is rather intimate, unfolding in a series of mildly engaging interactions between Miller and the women, the surrounding reality must have encouraged Yimou to go for the production values of an epic picture, with an excessive running time.

It may or may not be a coincidence that over the past three years there have been amazing features (largely documentaries) about Nanjing.  The best of the bunch is probably “City of Life and Death.”  But here was also “Nanjing: Memory and Oblivion,” by Michael Prazan.”  These and other features have used archival footage and photos, interviews with Chinese survivors and eyewitnesses, former Japanese soldiers, and both Chinese and Japanese government officials to document what has become known in history books as “The Rape of Nanking.”

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