The Flowers of War
Beginning with a breakout role in Stephen Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale has entertained filmgoers for a quarter-century. At 37, Bale's masterly commitment to each character is total. Rather like Daniel Day-Lewis, his dexterity and careful selection have made him one of the industry's finest performers and, as it happens, one of the most highly sought-after. Just a quick glance at his oeuvre reveals the actor's range: a sleep-deprived and sickly machinist, a deceptive magician, a psychopath, a strung-out ex-boxer, and, well, Batman.
It is for his take on the tortured billionaire and bat that he is perhaps best-known, and fans of the franchise will see him don the cape once more in this summer's The Dark Night Rises. But until then, Bale leads in another epic, Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War. In it he plays an American caught up in the Japanese occupation of Nanking.
While relatively few Westerners are familiar with the particulars of the Nanking massacre, the genocidal barbarism wrought upon the Chinese citizenry still provokes controversy and pain. Over a six-week period, Japanese soldiers would rape tens of thousands of men, women, and children; hundreds of thousands of civilians and unarmed servicemen would be slain. The film, a story of survival and sacrificial love, offers a stirring glimpse into this tragedy.
As Flowers opens, we are subject to grim scenes of chaos. The Japanese onslaught has laid waste to the city. The ill-equipped Chinese military has been overrun; few are left to protect the innocent, many of whom are savagely slaughtered in the streets, or in their hiding spaces. The dead are left about the rubble and in the alleyways.
Amidst this destruction, we meet John Miller (Bale), who, with the help of two young girls from a convent, finds his way to Winchester Cathedral. Soon thereafter a group of Chinese courtesans seeking refuge do the same. The church, though, is a token shelter from the marauding soldiers outside. And within its walls, a boiling tension between the prostitutes who take up in the cellar and the young priory girls who find their presence detestable only inflame the fears felt. This clash is understandable, even amidst cataclysmic conditions. And it does afford us some sense of the class divisions and attitudes among Chinese women during the period. But what is most rewarding is watching their relationship develop.
Whatever token relief the church offered its inhabitants, once the Japanese breach its doors, that protection, however illusory, are shattered. Miller, whom viewers may find contemptible, at least at first -- fixated on money, booze, and personal pleasure -- is immediately faced with a choice: try to save his own life or come to the aid of the girls. He decides to help, of course. And though his rationale for doing so isn't fully explored, Bale is convincing.
Flowers's ability to completely absorb the audience would not have been possible without strong performances from its lead actors. Ever reliable, Bale is both powerful and understated. And newcomer Ni Ni (as prostitute Pu Mo) matches him with a mesmerizing grace and fearlessness that commands our attention. Tinyuan Huang's determined effort (as George) turns emotionally volcanic as the film nears its end.
Though the movie is admittedly melodramatic and contrived at times, Yimou's thoughtful artistry is entrancing. Bursts of color are often shown in sharp relief against the muddy, earthy grays that overwhelm the landscape. From the bright and broken stained glass windows to the exquisite attire of the courtesans, we are compelled to take in these images, just as we are the jarring scenes of brutality. Few directors are so capable. But then, Zhang Yimou was essential to the choreographed majesty of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Discerning lovers of martial arts and CGI wizardry may remember Hero, while others may recall the director's nostalgic masterpiece The Road Home. With Flowers, already a mega-hit in China, filmgoers have the opportunity to experience a deeply affecting human story that is one of the genre's best.
Brendon S. Peck is a freelance writer. He can be reached at Bshawnp@gmail.com.
The Flowers of War (R-130 minutes) opened to limited release in December and will expand further in January.