In 100 years of Chinese film, The Flowers of War is the first major title to feature a western movie star. It earned a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, and is China’s entry for Oscars. With a budget of more than $94 million, this highly anticipated war drama is the most expensive film ever made in China. Needless to say, the hype and anticipation around this film is staggering. Does it live up to it? Christian Bale deserves the Oscar for his breath taking performance. Christian Bale traces perfectly the path of enlightenment that follows a Wild-West style bandit obsessed with money becoming priest and father-figure in all but religious training. Almost everything in this movie is based on real history, including how Japanese tortured Chinese war victims, how prostitutes stood up to protect other women during the Rape of NanJing, as well as how some westerners resided in China at the time helped local Chinese. It is here where the story is introduced when John Miller (Christian Bale) comes to Nanjing to prepare the burial of a deceased priest at a church, he encounters the brutal massacre by the Japanese invaders.
Directed by Zhang Yimou, who many of you know him from his film “Hero” in 2002, has easily topped that achievement. For many educated history buffs, we all have seen documentaries and short films made by the Japanese soldiers themselves for showing off and promoting a sense of fears at that time. I am glad such scenes are made in a very controlled yet enlighting manner. For an American viewer, the burden to watch this movie is extremely heavy, especially before around the holidays. The choices and sacrifices made by the characters never seemed contrived. The arc of Christian Bale’s character may seem ‘predictable’, but it is never false or ‘convenient’ to the story.
There have been early accusations that Zhang has made a piece of propaganda filming for China’s leaders. I’ll be the first to tell you that this is nonsense. Winning an Oscar or not, Zhang Yimou tells an incredible story that depicts Japanese’s appalling crime in China’s darkest period, while the humanity and compassion from crime’s victims are on full display. Another strip of backlash I have heard was about the “white man saving the native” angle – this is unfair criticism. The Last Samurai was also guilty of this but that too, was a great film about honor. The most memorable Japanese character, played by Kobayashi, is obviously very cultured and very conflicted as well. So I think these aspects of criticism do not apply to this film. The Nanjing dialect in this movie is great and adds considerable authenticity to the characters; the music is wonderfully low-key and appropriately Chinese.
This is a powerful movie, expertly crafted by Zhang Yimou and his team. There are moments of extreme horror and tragedy, and moments of great humanity within the horror. Ironically, recently there is news of Christian Bale went to visit a blind Chinese human rights lawyer who is confined at home by local police in Shandong Province china. Bale being stopped and roughed up by local police was viewable on youtube. Though the situation was not a bit deadly as in the movie, the local police gave Bale similar attitude like the Japanese soldiers in the movie. Bale fled in a van with the camera crew, reminding viewers the end of the movie. If you can watch this film and not tear up, you have no soul. Bale has simply knocked this one out of the park.