Friday, 27 April 2012

Film Review: The Flowers Of War

Certificate: 'R' (strong violence including a sexual assault, disturbing images and brief strong language)
Directed By: Yimou Zhang
Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tong Dawei, Zhang Xinyi, Atsurô Watabe, Shigeo Kobayashi, Cao Kefan
Budget: $94 million
Runtime: 146 minutes
Trailer: Watch

Yimou Zhang's The Flowers Of War charts one of Chinese history's darkest chapters in the 'Rape of Nanking'. Given the subject matter, recently thrust into the limelight on account that Japanese school textbooks almost omit the atrocity, there was a fear that this state-approved epic would take the vitriolic approach of demonising the Japanese. Certainly these elements exist, but this isn't all the one-dimensional nationalistic jingoism one might have expected. More so, The Flowers Of War uses the events of Nanking as more of a perfunctory to its character driven melodrama. However, given the reverence that this subject commands and Zhang's preference to focus on the theatrics there is a sense that he sacrifices the setting's historical poignance. Rather than give the audience the grand sense of horror befitting and respectful of this gruesome event we are instead treated to bathetic prosaism.

This is exemplified in its setting which takes place mostly within a church compound, removed from the heinous acts taking place beyond its walls. It is here where the initially irredeemable vagrant John Miller (Bale) stumbles in search of refuge as the Japanese advance into the city. Not long after he arrives does a group of young women, libidinously dressed, come knocking on the gates. With the resident padre dead, Miller dons the priest's robes as he finds himself caught in the role of mediator between the convent girls who live there and the ladies of the night who turn the church basement into a concubine's enclave. Promised pleasures of the flesh, Miller agrees to use his caucasian exterior and the immunity it grants him to shield the young women from Japanese abuses. One might say that Miller is the hero that Nanking needs, but not the one it deserves.

It is a bizarre scenario, one almost immaculately constructed for the purpose of histrionics which facilitates the development of wildly fantastical character arcs. Indeed, redemption seems to be at a premium as Miller is transformed from self-interested hedonist to one worthy of being a bona fide man of the cloth while the scornful cellar courtesans morph into unconceited charmers. Everything in The Flowers Of War is either overly embellished or aggrandised to nigh caricature. From the gushing self-sacrifice of one group for another to the hyperbolic antics of a lone Chinese soldier (Dawei), the much expected undercurrent of Chinese nationalism begins to rear its unwelcome head. Fortunately Zhang seems conscious of this and does his best to reign it in, despite there being a clear struggle between delivering audience expectations while trying to prevent them from running off with the narrative.

All said, The Flowers Of War does have its moments. For one it is fantastically photographed. It can be touching, sometimes horrifying and occasionally befitting of its historical setting. Unfortunately it is all too often exposed to either maudlin melodrama or unneeded ethnocentrism which make this an all too inchoate film. As such what should be the film's main thrust, its consecration of terrible events, becomes lost in a spectacle.