It’s not often that I am able to review an Asian film so soon after it has been released, even with the wonders of the internet, I usually have to wait several months before usable subtitles become available. But as this one is the Chinese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, it seems a DVD Screener is available with full subtitles online much earlier than usual. But more on that at the end of this review. I should also mention that I would normally be putting up my Top 10 of the Year right now, but there have been a number of late breaking releases that have quite possibly jumped on the list at the last minute – so I need to get a few reviews out of the way first.
The Flowers of War” is the latest epic from Zhang Yimou, who is probably one of China’s most famous film Directors to Westerners, as he not only Directed crossover hits like “Hero”, “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower”, but he also was the artistic force behind the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony. However, I have to be honest, I also admire his films for their visual style, but I have never really been touched by anything of his that I have seen. This changes now.
It is 1937 Nanking, and one of the most horrific events of the 2nd Sino-Japanese war is taking place. Stumbling through the Horror is American Mortician John Miller (Christian Bale, yes THAT Christian Bale), who seems to be intent on fulfilling his contract to bury a recently deceased Catholic Priest. A broken man, he not only finds himself in the middle of a War, but the Cathedral he finally makes he way too had become a hiding place for not only a bunch of Catholic Schoolgirls who have been unable to escape Nanking, but a group of Prostitutes have also made it their refuge from the Japanese. Although initially only interested in collecting his fee, events conspire to make John pretend to be the incumbent Priest, in order to protect both sets of women. Can he balance those very different groups of women, maybe even find himself again after years of depression, and keep everyone safe from the Japanese? Even when it becomes obvious that even a noble Japanese Commander may well not have the young girls best interests at heart?
I have a lot of issues with the film to be honest, but I am pretty sure I can blame most of them on the nature of the source material (from a novel by Yan Geiling I don’t think has been published in English yet) – the story relies on a few too many coincidences for my liking, John Miller suddenly goes through a personality change that many will find jarring (although I personally can understand what happened when a conversation hidden late in the film is bought to light), and a section with a local Chinese Army leader seems to be forced too far in the front of the film.
In fact, the first 30 minutes of the film are a bit at odds with the rest of it – it is a little “Saving Private Ryan”, done well, with lots of bloodshed and slow motion deaths – but far from anything special, and I am certain some reviewers did not watch much more than that opening segment. It’s all perfectly fine, but it isn’t until we move into the Cathedral, and leave the war behind for a while that the magic happens.
Bale is as good as he usually is – I like him as an actor, he always puts in 100% to his roles, even if sometimes his film choices are questionable. But he manages to pull off the down on the world and himself Character of Miller here, without chewing up the scenery, and is surprisingly capable of sharing the screen with some young and new to acting talent.
In fact special mention should be made of the cast here – Huang Tianyuan is brilliant as the young boy forced to look after the female students, with a conclusion to his story which could easily have ended up as an awful mess becoming both wryly amusing and tender. The acting from all the females is first class, whether they be Children or Prostitute. Newcomer Ni Ni impressed me greatly as the de facto leader of the courtesans.
Its a long film, clocking in a around two and a half hours, and after the initial 30 minutes, it really is a film about talking, along with a build up of tension, punctuated by a couple of moments of really rather nasty events perpetrated by the Japanese. You could actually find the portrayal of the Japanese rather distasteful in this film, but I am afraid the Historical record is pretty much going to show that even for a Chinese film, I’m not sure things are too exaggerated. The Massacre in Nanking really is a quite horrific example of the depths that the human race can fall to. However, in the final third of the film, once or principal characters have managed to work through their relationships with each other, I can honestly say I was as emotionally connected with this film as I have been with any film in the last twelve months.
You really get to know the characters, even though you actually only meet a few on first name terms. You care about their fates, and the sacrifice that one group make for another is honestly one of the bravest yet logical things I have seen (and yes it IS only a movie, I know this). Initially I was actually disappointed with the lack of conclusion that the film gave me – but hen I realised that I probably did not need to see any more rape and murder, and it was best to remember these characters alive.
I loved this film, and I didn’t expect to. There are a million things wrong with it. Yet, as a story that touched my heart, that made me care about the fates of those involved, I have to find this one Highly Recommended.
But now a post-script. The film is China’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Now there are various rules and regulations, and it hits most of them happily enough. Except, I think 50% of the film is in English. And at least 10% of it is in Japanese. Which means it doesn’t really fulfil the requirement of the film’s main language being the native one of the country that is putting the film forward. So, I doubt it is going to make the shortlist – which is a shame.