Set during the 1937 Japanese siege of Nanking, The Flowers of War pivots around two groups of very different Chinese women who must rely on the stereotypical drunken Western rogue male, played by Christian Bale, to rescue them from a fate worse than death. Given that one group is a band of famous whores, the Ladies of the Qin Huai River’s Jade Paradise, and the second consists of a dozen helpless convent girls, you might think we’re in for some mildly titillating banter, a scary moment or two, sealed by a chaste kiss.
Instead, this is one crazy kitschy bloody lollapalooza, comparable to Katherine Bigelow’s Point Break in its staging of can-you-top-this scenes. Filmed in High-Steven-Spielberg-Definition so that you experience battle in all its gory verisimilitude, Flowers raises the stakes by tackling its most disturbing issue head-on. The threat of gang rape hangs over the convent girls the entire time, and not every girl escapes with her virginity intact, or her life. Think of Madeleinethe Orpheline with a Dragon Tattoo vibe–if you can stand it.
So that’s a warning for the faint of heart. This reviewer was no stranger to the Nanking atrocity, having stumbled on photos in an old Time-Life book on my grandparents’ shelves when I was eight or nine. And my father, who was in Shanghai when it fell in 1947, used to hold me enthralled with tales of the “open city” panic. Like many of Chinese ancestry or those with a China Hand in the family tree, I followed the saga of Iris Chang as her 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, rose to bestseller status and triggered a vicious backlash. Even so, I was taken aback by several of the scenes (the most gruesome of which is documented, with photos, in Wikipedia’s “Nanking Massacre” entry. Discretion advised).
But director Zhang Yimou is hardly throwing a pity party. In transmuting Geling Yan’s novel, The 13 Women of Nanjing, Zhang adopts an operatic approach to counterpoint the hyperreal detail: Imagine Tarantino doing the Holocaust. The result feels like nationalistic myth-making, and, while stunning, is less history than propaganda. In what might be read as an overture to the West, the PRC censors even allowed Zhang to pull out every Christian-themed stop: stained glass windows, bare ruined choirs, choral singing, a humble organ. Though party-line correctness is refreshingly absent in the details, it rules both outline and affect.
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t see it. Visually and acoustically gorgeous, with flashes of Bollywood amidst the Grand Guignol, Flowers is on a par with China’s Olympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, which Zhang also directed. Those spectacles paired Busby Berkeley with Leni Riefenstahl, far removed from Zhang’s early tragedy of 1920s Chinese marital customs, Raise the Red Lantern.
As the male lead, Bale is a poignant reminder of his movie debut in Spielberg’s underrated film of China, Empire of the Sun. Back then he played the ingenue, and John Malkovich the rogue. Now it’s Bale’s turn to follow the redemptive arc. I wish I could say he pulled it off without a hitch, but he’s been saddled with anachronistic lines that sound like a loop from Spike TV. (Often the trouble with these international vehicles–the writers trying to sound hip in three languages.)
As the leader of the fallen women, Ni Ni is alluring (with her own arc to complete). Indeed, all the scenes with the Jade Paradise gals are infused with poetic and historic allusions to China’s courtesan culture. But the film’s true find is the 10-year-old boy played by Tianyuan Huang, who has been running the convent school since the death of the old priest. The power of his performance stems largely from the role he plays in the story, but like Bale in Empire, he’s made his mark out of the gate.
Lorrie Moore once wrote that opera is sculpted howling. That pretty much describes The Flowers of War. It’s mind-blowing, but that’s not entirely a compliment–we need our minds in these times. Still, if you can stomach the roller-coaster ride, it’s a helluva flick. You won’t want to ask for your money back.