Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Christian Bale and Ni Ni. In English and Mandarin with English subtitles. Rated 18A.
Roberto Rossellini's General della Rovere was a movie about a petty con man who, by pretending to be an Italian Resistance hero, actually became one. To a certain extent, Zhang Yimou`s latest epic can be seen as the story of an alcoholic mortician who, through pretending to be a principled priest, unexpectedly saves more than just his own soul. Of course, because this is yet another dramatization of the Rape of Nanking (the third in the past four years, and that's not counting the documentaries), The Flowers of War is about a lot of other things as well (of which the courageous solidarity of women is among the most significant).
When we first meet John Miller (Christian Bale), the man is dirty, thirsty, and out for everything he can get. When he discovers that the prelate he was supposed to bury has been blown to smithereens, even the presence of a class of convent girls doesn't change his attitude much. It is only after the church where he lives is invaded by a troupe of prostitutes and then by a platoon of murderous Japanese soldiers that his heart really starts to melt.
Because the plot was culled from a novel rather than the archives, The Flowers of War feels dramatically freer than its predecessors. And because Zhang Yimou is at the helm, one can see exactly how the film's enormous budget was spent. What's more, Flowers unfolds in two very different registers. The battle scenes are fast-paced and punctuated with lots of blood; the quieter moments freely bathe in the waters of melodrama, sentimentality, kitsch, and even straight camp.
Does this tonal disjuncture result in a masterpiece? No, but it does produce one of the best “movie” movies in quite some time.
Watch the trailer for The Flowers of War.