Chinese director, Yimou Zhang, is already known to audiences with films like Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. In his new film, The Flowers of War, he re-imagines the “Rape of Nanjing” through the eyes of a group of innocent girls and an American desperately trying to find their way out of the battlefield. John Miller (Christian Bale) arrives at Nanking during the Japanese raid of the 1930s to help bury the priest of a cathedral. However, when he finally reaches the place all he finds is a choir of twelve girls and the young boy protecting them.
It is needless to argue that by casting Bale as the foreigner, the film ensures it will reach a wider audience. This is aided by the fact that a good part of the dialogue was written and shot in English. However, Bale’s character is not only someone whose point of view Western audiences can share but is also the only character who improves. From the mortician who seeks payment for nothing, he turns into a selfless man who undertakes the responsibility of saving the students by pretending to be the priest of the cathedral. Bale is also the only one who adds a sense of humour to the dark atmosphere.
…turning even the most horrifying scenes of death into something to be remembered.
Although the plot is simple, the film doesn’t leave any of its strands unfinished. The story is told mostly visually through the elegant cinematography turning even the most horrifying scenes of death into something to be remembered. There is a good balance between the scenes of violence brought by the Japanese troops and the shots behind the beautiful stained glass window and the way it renders reality for those who are hiding in the cathedral. Even the smallest drop of red blood, which sprays across the screen, is given meaning. Additional colour is brought about when the women of the red-light district arrive. The slow-motion shots of the group of women walking into the convent yard with their shiny clothes and loud voices strongly contrast with the ruins and dirt.
Apart from Miller, each of the characters represents a simple idea, which is often predictable and doesn’t change as the story progresses. There is no attempt to render the Japanese deeper than killing machines. The only Japanese who is humanized is Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe). Unfortunately, even he can’t fight what has already planned for the girls of the convent. Meanwhile, the leader of the prostitutes, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), reveals to be someone more interesting than a beautiful face.
…it focuses on the aesthetics…
All in all, The Flowers of War doesn’t concentrate on historical events but rather uses them as a setting to tell the story that goes behind the walls of the cathedral. The characters’ fates have already been decided for them but there are still one or two ominous twists to be expected towards the end. It would have been interesting to see more of the potential relationship between the two groups of women but the film isn’t interested in that. Instead it focuses on the aesthetics of the telling of a story and not on presenting a complicated plot and characters, which it cannot resolve. The aesthetics of the film, alone, make it worth seeing.