Director: Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers Hero, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Curse of the Golden Flower, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop)
Screenplay: Heng Liu, Geling Yan (novel)
Producer: Weiping Zhang
Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Xinyi Zhang, Tianyuan Huang, Xiting Han, Dawei Tong
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 146 min.
With every year that we move farther from the memory of old wars, the more we become familiar with stories and heroics of those times, of people who put themselves in danger, quite literally in the line of fire, to help those who are unable to help themselves. The tales are always sad and sometimes even happy but few manage to be both ugly and beautiful at the same time. Such is the case with Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War.
This particular tale of heroics takes place during the so called “Rape of Nanking” in 1937. John Miller is an American “volunteer,” a mortician making his way through the fighting to get to a church where the local priest has been killed. He barely makes it there alive but arrives only to discover no body for burial, no money to pay for his services and a church full of orphaned girls and a young man, a boy himself, who is looking after them. Wooed by the calling of the dead priest’s comfortable bed, Miller hunkers down for the night when the church receives a group of surprising visitors: women from the red light district who have been promised safe passage out of Nanking. Problem is the man who was supposed to get them out fled alone earlier that day.
The church is now crawling with gorgeous women in their beautifully colourful garments, the young girls in their drab blue uniforms and a drunk American more interested in finding the church’s wine and getting it on with Yu Mo, the woman in charge of the prostitutes, than in getting out of Nanking. Slowly Miller comes to his senses and soon he’s planning a daring escape for everyone but just when it seems that things are going well, the Japanese throw an unexpected wrench into the proceedings leading to a heartbreaking third act which tests not only humanity’s ability to survive but fully displays the sacrifices people make.
Yimou doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of war and The Flowers of War is an unflinching, often gruesome look at events that unfolded in many corners of Nanking. It’s a tale of death, destruction and the evils of humanity but also of survival, resilience and sacrifice. It’s amazing that a story of so much death and pain can also be a shinning beacon of the goodness of humanity but the two are beautifully combined here in an emotionally resonant story.
The performances from a mostly inexperienced cast are all wonderful but none are better than Christian Bale who brings just the right mix of smarmy and heartfelt to the role of John Miller and when he eventually opens up to Mo, played by the wonderful Ni Ni, the reveal feels authentic. Heng Liu’s script, adapted from Geling Yan’s novel, doesn’t provide much in the way of character details but we learn just enough to become emotionally invested in these people, including those that have only minor roles in the story but are nonetheless memorable.
The Flowers of War is a difficult watch, a movie which portrays the ugliness of war, complete with bloody battles and confrontations, without revelling in the violence. Yimou presents images and ideas which are heartbreaking but he peppers the movie with moments of beauty, even if occasionally that beauty is seeped in violence. It’s a beautiful film and one that won’t easily be forgotten and though it’s a difficult one to watch, it’s also immensely satisfying.
The Flowers of War is available on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 14th.
DVD Extras: This release has a fantastic assortment of extras including “Meeting Christian Bale,” “The Newborn Stars,” and “Perfection of Light and Colour” but the most interesting is a featurette titled “The Birth of The Flowers of War” which outlines everything from the casting to the set building and costume design.
Click “play” to see the trailer: