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The Flowers of War
Flowers of War     Flowers of War

(left) Christian Bale and Huang Tianyuan, and (right) Zhang Xinyi in Flowers of War.
AKA: The 13 Women of Nanjing
AKA: Nanjing Heroes
Chinese: 金陵十三釵
Year: 2011
Director: Zhang Yimou
Producer: Zhang Weiping

Liu Heng, Yan Geling (original novel)

Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Tong Dawei, Atsuro Watabe, Huang Tianyuan, Cao Kefan, Han Xiting, Zhang Doudou, Yuan Yangchunzi, Sun Jia, Li Yuemin, Bai Xue, Li Chun, Zhou Mengqiao, Qian Liuyin, Deng Li, Zhou Yu, Gu Xuan, Su Xiaomei, Ye Qingyuan, Dai Yaojun, Shen Junran, Li Chuchu, Wang Jingwen, Li Zuiqi, Jin Zixin, Gu Yixuan, Xu Jiali, Zhang Zhaoyi, Tan Yimin, Zhao Yicong, Que Liwen, Wu Yunan, Shigeo Kobayashi, Takashi Yamanaka, Paul Schneider, Huang Haibo, Zhu Liangqi, Gao Hu, Shawn Dou, Qin Hao, Nie Yuan
  The Skinny: Intended for global distribution, Zhang Yimou's Flowers of War is too ham-handed and China-centric to work for audiences everywhere. The central drama between the schoolgirls and the prostitutes is strong, but the advertised one - between Christian Bale and a bunch of Asian women - is conventional if not embarrassing. A mixed bag of harrowing brutality, pandering drama and finally some effective emotion. Worth seeing but not necessarily for the reasons they want you to.
by Kozo:

Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War stars Christian Bale, and apparently, he's the hero that China deserves. But maybe not the one that they need. The Dark Knight actor was inserted into this Nanjing Massacre-set drama in order to attract global attention to Chinese cinema, but that's just one intended consequence of this mega-budget would-be blockbuster. Flowers of War is a serious, serious film about a serious event but it's also a serious, serious product aimed at making serious money and enhancing China's "soft power" like Hollywood does for the United States. After decades of acceptance, Hollywood fare has given western culture pervasive and unrivaled global cachet. Someone in China must have said, "Hey, we're now the rising global power. Why can't our culture be the one that the world rabidly consumes?"

The problem: despite being a solid big-budget drama, Flowers of War is not the film to convince the world that China's cultural product should replace Mission Impossible 16. Hollywood commercial product has grown increasingly middle-of-the-road, filmmakers compromising their ideas in hopes of squeezing more money out of the global film market. China steadfastly controls their media, using cinema to push nationalist dogma if not overtly then subtly - and to be frank, the world does not want to watch movies about how great, righteous or infallible the Chinese are. Hell, they don't want to watch movies about how cool Americans are either – they turn out for Transformers: The Grey of Pluto because of robots, explosions, robots, CGI and also robots. A Nanjing Massacre movie is not going to help Chinese Cinema hit the global big time.

And neither will Batman, especially when he's shoehorned into a movie so gracelessly. Christian Bale plays American John Miller, a selfish mortician who grows into a hero when he helps to protect a group of Catholic schoolgirls and an equal number of Chinese prostitutes from the rampaging Japanese army. When we meet Miller, he's dodging bullets in the ruins of Nanjing, on his way to a Catholic church to bury their dead father. When he gets to the church, he ransacks the place for money and alcohol while shoving aside the schoolgirls and their lone protector, a teen boy named George (Huang Tianyuan). When the prostitutes arrive seeking shelter, he throws catcalls and amps the smarm, especially towards Yu Mo (Ni Ni), who he regales with the comment, "I love looking at that ass!" Miller's boorishness is an acceptable trait but in Bale's hands, it's exaggerated to such cartoonish degree that his personal tranformation never convinces.

Also, Bale is billed as the star when he's clearly a supporting player, much like Tong Dawei's Major Li, a Chinese soldier whose brave, selfless defense of the church against invading Japanese soldiers makes him a hero but also a ringer. The film depicts a Chinese soldier as noble, while the American is selfish and the Japanese are Ip Man-level evil. These are easy stereotypes that can inflame the China audience, especially when the Rape of Nanjing is used as a backdrop. All Chinese audiences need is this particular setting to become emotionally invested, but Flowers of War does not sufficiently sell the history to those unaware. The foreground story – about the relationship between the prostitutes, the schoolgirls and their white savior – is for the most part conventional. To truly affect a global audience, the filmmakers should have educated them on the horrific details of this dark historical event, and not used them as just background.

There's still harrowing content that'll affect an audience - bodies strewn about the city, soldiers shot and killed, schoolgirls being killed, near-rape of schoolgirls, actual rape of prostitutes. The problem is that Flowers of War does not strike a balance in its portrayal of human beings involved in war. War makes heroes and monsters of all peoples, and does not differentiate according to race or nationality. The broad strokes taken by the filmmakers invalidate Flowers of War from truly working for a global audience. Less aware audience members may not notice the pandering characterizations, but it's doubtful they'd choose to see the film anyway. The film's superficial content approaches the exotic "other" that the world expects from Asia, e.g., sashaying prostitutes, patriarchal males, colorful cheongsams, etc. This is the same cultural tourism that appeals to arthouse sensibilities while rarely achieving crossover success.

Christian Bale's character is less of a factor than his casting and poster placement would suggest, and the film requires obvious and sometimes embarrassing dialogue to justify his importance. Most awkward is the creation of a hardly-felt love triangle between John Miller, Yu Mo and lead schoolgirl Shu (Zhang Xinyu), who supposedly crushes on Miller. Likewise, Miller's ardent love for Yu Mo is forced and pandering. However, the connections between the women are developed acutely and even convincingly. There's a natural conflict between the schoolgirls and the prostitutes, and their growing respect and eventual care for one another comes from quick, costly decisions and also deliberate and tragic ones. At the crux of Flowers of War is a sacrifice that, while debatable in how it weighs the value of life between "pure" and "tarnished" women, does strike a strong emotional chord.

The actresses are fine in their roles, showing personality even though their English language dialogue is awkwardly written. Christian Bale is OK but his performance is poorly balanced; he overacts both before and after his character's transformation, and tears up far too much to make the show of emotion affecting. Japanese actors mostly go for crazed menace or glowering disdain, with Atsuro Watabe showing presence but not convince as the sympathetic but inexplicable Colonel Hasegawa. Tong Dawei is the strongest as Major Li. Though his character can be seen as an audience-pandering construct, Tong is appropriately emotional and charismatic, and his opening action scenes set a strong tone while also drawing the audience in more effectively than the subsequent church-set melodrama. This is a movie, after all, and Li is a movie-style hero – even though the film never reveals if he's fighting for the CCP or KMT army.

Where Flowers of War absolutely excels is technically. Zhang Yimou may have compromised in other aspects (story, characterization, marketing, etc.) but he brings his strong talents as a visual filmmaker and shows them off splendidly. Slow motion is used properly, and explosions are felt visually and emotionally. War sequences are very powerful, capturing the battlefield’s helter-skelter chaos with strong clarity and grim tension, and the drama is unswervingly felt as the film reaches its climax. As a big-budget war drama for the mass China audience, Flowers of War hits its marks with sufficient weight and detail. But in attempting to crossover from China to the rest of the world, the filmmakers pander to both China and the globe – and the result is a film that does not fully work. Zhang Yimou brings power, emotion and craft, but he does not create a complete and consistent film that achieves all it intends. When you reach for the skies, the fall is greater - that's Flowers of War in a nutshell. (Kozo, 2012)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Language Track
Dolby Digital EX / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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