Yimou Zhang is back with a new film and once again he means business. The Flowers Of War [Jin Ling Shi San Chai] is China's most expensive film yet and it's one of the first major Chinese films to prominently feature an American Hollywood star as its main character. Mr Batman himself (Christian Bale) is disguising himself as fake-priest John Miller, who takes it upon himself to protect a church full of orphans and prostitutes from the Japanese soldiers.
After releasing Curse Of The Golden Flowers Zhang retreated back to China. Between directing the opening sequence of the Olympic Games and releasing two low-key projects (at least internationally speaking, Love Of The Hawthorn Tree and The First Gun - despite the latter being a rough remake of the Coen's Blood Simple. - received very little attention) Zhang was almost invisible to us Westerners. Six years later he returns with a film that strives to match his former glory.
The Flowers Of War travels back Nanking, 1937. Japanese soldiers are invading the city and the Chinese are running for their lives. Few people are spared during this gruesome invasion. American citizen John Miller abuses the situation to make some quick money as he tries to rob a church from its prized possessions. The church is some kind of safe house and holds a group of young orphans. Miller isn't really bothered by their presence though and continues his quest for valuables.
Not much later a group of prostitutes join the orphans in the hope the Japanese won't find them in the church. The tension inside the church quickly rises and when the Japanese finally raid the place Miller unexpectedly steps up to safe the children from the cruelties of war. What follows is a struggle to escape from the clutches of the Japanese without harming any of the people present in the church.
Zhang's work is known to be insanely colorful (think Hero), so the rather grim setting of a city at war may surprise fans at first. Zhang is meticulous in his visual direction though, so it's hardly noticeable during the first couple of scenes. Until the point where we enter the church that is. Apparently Zhang found himself a stained glass window which he continuously abuses in the most magnificent of ways to inject his film with bright and emotive colors. The results are stunning, be it the light falling through the window, the glass shattering by a bullet impact or a simple scene shot from up close through the window. He even found a second excuse in the beautiful dresses worn by the prostitutes, who also bring a lot of color to the film. The visual contrast between both aspects is simply brilliant.
The soundtrack is pretty interesting too. The first couple of scenes are heavily muted, which is quite unusual for a film of such epic proportions. No loud, sentimental music or ear-shattering sound effects, but the dull thuds of war in the background. Later on the score becomes more prominent, while still finding a surprisingly good balance between Western and traditional Chinese influences. The mix is almost refreshing and suits the film very well. The score still finds itself well within the boundaries of what could be expected, but the execution is gentle and admirable.
Bale does a pretty good job here. It's always a little tricky, casting a famous actor in the lead of an Asian film, especially when he's supposed to be some kind of savior. Bad memories of Cruise's Last Samurai still haunt my nightmares, luckily Bale's character is different. He isn't just the good guy saving those poor Chinese people from their horrible fate. He actually starts out as a bona fide asshole, slowly warming up to the people that share his barren fate inside the church. The Chinese actors are mostly first-timers but do a great job too, as they provide Bale with the necessary dramatic challenges to rise above himself.
My biggest worry before seeing this film was the inclusion of Bale. I'm not a big fan of Asian films trying to be a Western film as most of them end up as half-arsed attempts that fail on both accounts. The Flowers Of War presents an interesting mix though, where Bale's presence brings a more Westerns feel while the film itself still manages to step beyond the boundaries of traditional Hollywood film making. There are Western influences found in just about every aspect of the film (cinematography, acting, soundtrack, ...), but they are always blended in such a way that they come off as refreshing, not working against the Chinese foundation of the film.
One popular critique about this film is about the black and white depiction of the Japanese soldiers. There's hardly any nuance or subtlety and they are shown as wild and savage beasts, raping and killing whoever they get their hands on. While this critique is quite factual, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. Of course it's a little tricky as the film is based on a true setting, on the other hand The Flowers Of War is a film that demands a proper bad guy. Subtlety wouldn't have helped the dramatic impact of the film, it would in fact have made it a totally different film altogether. So yeah, it may not be true to life, but that's why it's a dramatized film and not a documentary. I hope most audiences will be smart enough to look past that.
The Flowers Of War borders on sentimentality and poses as a very epic endeavor. It's Zhang's magnificent direction that erases any major critiques, turning the film into a proper epic spectacle. There are moments of unsurpassed beauty, tucked away in a strong story, propelled by a cast of fallible characters. Zhang cleverly steps around a few sentimental pitfalls and delivers a film that shines from start to finish. It's a return to form for Yimou Zhang, the only real downside is that the film failed to appear in theaters over here. A simple TV setup simply doesn't do justice to the beauty of this film.