Director Zhang Yimou is no stranger to epic period films that meld action with artistry to often stunningly beautiful effect, but films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower exist far from the real world. They feature their fair share of drama and loss, but wuxia films as a genre also include physical and acrobatic exaggerations that firmly remove it from the realm of reality.
The director’s latest film, The Flowers of War, does not allow itself that luxury.
It’s 1937, and the Chinese city of Nanjing has fallen to the invading Japanese army. Amid the citizens rushing to escape what will soon become a concrete prison are a group of Catholic schoolgirls who literally missed the boat and are now trying to make it back to their convent. The majority of them survive the run through the city, and they’re soon joined by an American named John Miller (Christian Bale) who had been hired to perform mortician duties on the recently deceased priest in charge of the convent. Miller’s only interest is in getting paid and getting out, but the arrival of a group of local courtesans complicates matters.
Japanese soldiers attack the convent and while the prostitutes hide the young girls are chased and assaulted until Miller, unable to ignore the screams echoing through the church, dons the priest’s robes and stands up to the invaders. His actions halt further tragedy, but they only delay the seemingly inevitable. Now Miller, acting as unintended protector, must find a way to help the women, girls, and a young boy named George to escape the city before the soldiers return to finish the vile and inhumane business that they had started.
The Flowers of War is an intense drama punctuated with memorable set pieces and real suspense. There are some spectacular action scenes early on as the Japanese and Chinese soldiers clash through the streets of the city and a lone sniper takes a stand, but even when the gunfire pauses the film remains a powder keg of emotion and pain. Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding capture it all and highlight the grim and grisly aspects as well as the beauty. Buildings explode in showers of colored ribbons and fabrics, lives are willingly sacrificed so that others may be spared, and humanity’s worst traits go head to head with its best. The girls’ blandly-frocked innocence also goes up against the women who arrive in shimmering, form-fitting satin dresses that hug their curves and catch everyone’s eyes. It’s a duality that Miller finds himself in the middle of leaving him in a crisis of desire at the worst possible time.
Bale is fine as a man uninterested in the welfare of others but forced to take action when their plight becomes unavoidable. His general weakness as an actor, that being his usual inability to appear anything but gruff or smarmy, serves the character’s transformation well here. It’s clear the girls’ safety is not his primary concern, but as events develop he can’t help but step in and put their welfare before his own. It’s a begrudging concern filtered through his own anger and frustration at his unwillingness to walk away when he has the chance, and Bale makes the pain of that decision visible. Miller is no action hero, and Bale mutes his natural inclination to grimace and kick ass in favor of playing someone whose biggest threat may be his own selfishness.
Two relative newcomers actually surpass Bale’s performance with heart-wrenching turns of their own. Zhang Xinyi plays Shu, one of the young girls who comes under Miller’s protection and develops a crush on him along the way. She’s put upon by the other girls because it was her father who promised then failed to get them out of Nanjing, but her bigger struggle is within as she tries to deal with a yearning for womanhood amidst the despair and threat of imminent death. She connects with one of the prostitutes, a woman named Yu Mo (Ni Ni), and watches as the woman also connects with Miller (albeit in a slightly different way). Both Xinyi and Ni find their characters’ emotional cores tested and emboldened by their desires and their witness to the acts of others around them, and they allow their love, fear and resignation to play through their performances to great effect.
Most of the other performances are minor in screen time only and help to infuse the film with real heart, risk and humanity, but it’s those three that will have viewers holding their focus and their breaths. (Huang Tianyuan‘s turn as George is also commendable.) Just as much of a character though is the church itself. From its architecture both inside and out to the way colored light filters through the bullet-riddled stained glass windows, the building takes on a persona all its own. Like the people huddled within, the church is revealed to be a fragile and penetrable entity unable to protect itself without the aid of others.
The Flowers of War is at times a thrilling and heart-breaking mix of action and drama that will fill your eyes with beauty and tears as it tells its story of the best and worst humanity has to offer. It also proves that Yimou’s kinetic prowess isn’t relegated strictly to centuries past but instead is just as accomplished in a more modern day setting. This is a huge film in China (and has also been chosen as their submission for the Best Foreign Language film), but even with Bale in the lead it’s sadly been relegated to a limited release here in the US. See it on the big screen if you get the chance as both the action and emotions on display are highly cinematic and rewarding.
The Upside: Heart-wrenching without ever feeling melodramatic; some of the young girls are fantastic little actresses; battle scenes are beautifully frenetic; final fifteen minutes will clean your tear ducts pretty thoroughly.
The Downside: Christian Bale is the weakest acting link here; runs a little longer than needed.
On the Side: For an equally emotional but less narrative-oriented look at the events in Nanjing check out the excellent The City of Life and Death.