A scene from the film The Flowers of War
Allegedly the most expensive film ever made in China, with a budget equivalent to $90 million, The Flowers of War opens in Britain today with an impressive reputation. It was the Chinese nomination for this year’s Oscars, and it stands as the third most successful film in the history of the China’s box-office.
Yet The Flowers of War below is a curious piece of work: a quintessentially Chinese film that also aims to captivate audiences in the west. It’s a wartime epic that revolves around a key event in Chinese history - the 1937 invasion of Nanking by a brutal Japanese army.
The clue to the film’s ambitions of global appeal is apparent from its casting. Its lead is Christian Bale, British-born star of the Batman movies. He plays John Miller, an American drifter who finds himself in Nanking just as the Japanese invade. (See trailer, below).
Miller is an unattractive character – a mercenary, womanising drunk. Eager to save his own skin, he talks himself into receiving refuge in the city’s Catholic cathedral – supposedly neutral territory. He finds himself sharing the safe haven of the cathedral with a score of young Chinese women. Half of these are innocent schoolgirls, the others charming but jaded prostitutes.
When the Japanese learn of these women’s presence, they try to enter the cathedral and drag them out. But Miller, an unlikely hero if ever there was one, comes to their rescue; after a bout of drinking during which he dons a priest’s robe, he decides that the role of saviour is to his liking, and devotes himself to protecting his charges.
This story of heroism and self-sacrifice is directed by China’s best-known film-maker Zhang Yimou, many of whose films have already been well received in the west: Hero, The House of Flying Daggers, Ju Dou and the exquisitely beautiful Raise the Red Lantern.
Yet my feeling about The Flowers of War is that somehow it gets lost in translation. To Chinese audiences, the Rape of Nanking remains an emotive subject. Yet the film is somewhat heavy-handed and laboured; many cinemagoers in the west will be able to guess exactly where it’s headed. It’s clear, for example, that John Miller, being played by a star actor, will turn out to be more decent than he initially appears.
It must also be said that from a western viewpoint the treatment of the women characters is clichéd and sentimental; it’s predictable that the flamboyant, hard-bitten prostitutes would turn out to have hearts of gold. And even though this is a Chinese film, there’s something uncomfortable about such an atrocity being related from the viewpoint of one American.
Ironically, The Flowers of War is at its best when the action moves outside the cathedral. Some of its combat scenes are simply thrilling; many of them involve the exploits of a Chinese soldier, Major Li, who achieved legendary status through his single-handed defiance of the Japanese.
Despite its evident faults, I warmed to The Flowers of War for its sheer scale and ambition: it’s a film that makes full, and often spectacular, use of the big screen.
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