There had been a lot of Oscar-buzz building for Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War, and with good reason. Yimou’s previous works include Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. Christian Bale was somehow attached as a lead. It’s the most expensive Chinese movie ever made; in fact, it’s the most expensive Asian production of all time. It’s also the top-grossing Chinese film of 2011, earning more than $66 million in just two weeks of release in its home country.
Ultimately, The Flowers of War fell short of an Oscar nom for Best Foreign Film. It’s not really a snub, though. The Flowers of War might have been a bit of calculated Oscar bait, yet it’s an involving and at times quite beautiful war-time melodrama despite its shortcomings.
The Flowers of War (Jin Líng Shí San Chai)
Director: Zhang Yimou
Based on the novel The 13 Women of Nanjing by Geling Yan, the film takes place during the Nanking Massacre. Over the course of six weeks, roughly 200,000 Chinese civilians and unarmed soldiers were killed by the Imperial Japanese forces. The Japanese soldiers also raped tens of thousands of men, women, and children during this time.
These atrocities are the historical backdrop of The Flowers of War, which opens in a smoldering Nanking about to fall to the Japanese. A group of schoolgirls flee to their convent for shelter. The church eventually becomes the safe haven for a drunken American mortician named John (Bale) and a group of courtesans led by Yu Mo (Ni Ni).
Through the first portion of the film, Yimou stages a pair of stunning battle sequences that probably ate up the majority of the $94 million budget. They almost have the feel of a Hong Kong action movie rather than a Mainland China war drama. Part of me is glad I haven’t seen Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death yet, a 2009 film about the Nanking Massacre. I could come to The Flowers of War with fresh eyes, and maybe now I can better appreciate what Chuan did with just a fraction of the budget.
The Flowers of War is peopled by broad character types. Bale’s reluctant hero is sort of like Han Solo by way of Barfly‘s Henry Chinaski. It’s actually pretty strange and even funny to see him mutter his way around a church in the middle of a fallen city. The levity is sort of welcome at the beginning, but it seems off toward the end. (I was surprised we hadn’t gotten desperately grim by then.) His human decency is ignited when the schoolgirls are in peril from Japanese soldiers storming the church.
And there’s Ni Ni’s character Yu Mo: the hooker with a heart of gold, or courtesan with a heart of jade if you prefer. This is Ni Ni’s film debut and she tries to do more more than just look gorgeous even though the material is not there. It’s a shame since her presence alone makes such an impression and she seems like she could be a breakout star. This is one of the weaknesses of playing with broad types, especially in a human drama like this. The broadness allows for a certain kind of narrative shorthand, but without deepening the material, you wind up with mannequins in the midst of a compelling story.
That’s the problem with the rest of the courtesans in The Flowers of War. Like mannequins, they are defined by the objects they carry rather than their personalities: one of them has a cat, one of them has a pipa with one string, that’s about it. I want to know more about their lives and less about their accessories.
By the second half of the movie, a few of the courtesans become pawns to advance the plot and create drama. One of these instances leads to an incredibly gut-wrenching depiction of the horrors of the Nanking Massacre, and yet it doesn’t make sense for the sequence to even occur. These are supposed to be savvy women who know the horrible things the Imperial Japanese are capable of, and yet they conveniently forget this when the plot demands it.
The schoolgirls are mannequins just like the courtesans, except for Shu (Zhang Xinyi) who periodically narrates the film. As with the courtesans, there are life stories lost in the melodrama — deep places left unexplored. George (Huang Tianyuan) is the only other child in the film I could identify by name. He’s the adopted son of the late priest who ran the church. George may have personality, though it’s mostly as the hapless helper to Bale’s reluctant hero.
At its heart, The Flowers of War is a gripping look at the sacrifices we make so that others can survive. I think that’s why despite its numerous flaws, its 145 minutes were always compelling. I wanted to know what happened next even if what happened previously was a contrivance. The film provides these moments of humanity that endure despite the its missteps and fluctuations in tone. The deep tragedy of what certain characters choose to do lingers even as it looms. The doom is there even as they try to make light of their situation. Perhaps they’re just making the most of what little laughter they have left. Characteristic of Yimou, there are also colors that linger — some from exploding buildings, some from stained glass, some from the floral patterns of a form-fitting cheongsam.
The Flowers of War is at least a movie with its heart in the right place. While it may have fallen short of my own expectations, it’s still a moving work. I wonder what Yimou will do as a follow-up. Something smaller is what I’m hoping. I wouldn’t mind seeing Ni Ni have a turn as a leading lady with material that could showcase her full talents. Hopefully whatever Yimou does next is just as heartfelt as The Flowers of War, but deeper and better thought out.
I guess I want to close by addressing something I’ve noticed in other reviews. A few critics feel that The Flowers of War indulges in anti-Japanese propaganda. I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed about Ip Man, which also deals with the Second Sino-Japanese War. To that, I say just look at the war crimes perpetrated by Imperial Japanese soldiers in the Nanking Massacre and the Bataan Death March. Now think of the other atrocities they committed during World War II. For instance, just over the holidays, my dad talked about one of his college professors in the Philippines who was gang raped by Imperial Japanese troops.
It’s impossible to think of moral or ethical shades of grey given the inhumanity that the Imperial Japanese soldiers routinely displayed. This doesn’t implicate the civilian population of Japan at the time who suffered tremendously through the war, nor does it implicate the Japanese population in the United States during the same period who were discriminated against and interred in centers like Manzanar.
To say that the vilification of Imperial Japanese soldiers is anti-Japanese propaganda is akin to saying that the vilification of the Nazis is anti-German propaganda. You can accuse The Flowers of War of a lot of things — melodrama, clichés, mannequins, even nationalism (though what are most war movies but a certain expression of national character?) — but to accuse the film of being anti-Japanese loses sight of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims in Nanking. Better it be acknowledged through melodrama than dismissed as mere propaganda.