Today: April 11, 2024

The Flowers Of War

By – Christa Ktorides – 1937 and the Japanese are a rampaging, unstoppable force.

By – Christa Ktorides

1937 and the Japanese are a rampaging, unstoppable force. Nanking (the then capital
of China) is all but lost, only a few Chinese soldiers remaining to protect the
citizens of the now decimated city. The
Flowers of War
– based on the novel The
Thirteen Flowers of War
by Yan
Geling
– tells the story of the brutal massacre and literal rape of a once
great city seen through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Shu (Zhang Xinyi) as she meets American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) when he takes refuge in
the Catholic cathedral with Shu, her convent schoolmates and a gaggle of
prostitutes who hide in the basement from the Japanese.

A particularly brutal and shameful stain on
Japan’s history, the 1937 occupation of Nanking has been the subject of several
Chinese films. That this version comes from celebrated director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise The Red Lantern) and stars
Christian Bale as the initially repugnant and opportunist John Miller
immediately sets it apart from its predecessors.

We first meet curious, young Shu as she and
her friends run and hide from the Japanese forces as all but a tiny amount of
Chinese soldiers remain in the city to protect the citizens. After a rather
stagey scene in which American John Miller and the girls escape the clutches of
the marauding Japanese we get to the crux of the tale. Mortician Miller has
been sent for to bury the dead priest of the local Catholic cathedral and
convent. When he arrives there is no body and more importantly no money.
14-year-old George (Huang Tianyuan),
an orphan who lives at the convent, begs for Miller’s help in protecting the
remaining students, Miller just wants his money. A selfish and boorish Yank,
Bale seems to be channelling his Oscar-winning turn as Dickie Eckland from The Fighter in these early scenes and
it feels somewhat forced coming from such a naturalistic performer.

Miller and the students aren’t the only
ones seeking refuge within the church grounds however. A group of colourful
courtesans arrive and force their way in, setting up home in the basement.
Among them is the beautiful and refined Yu Mo (a promising debut by newcomer Ni Ni). We also meet a heroic and honourable Chinese soldier (Tong Dawei) who plays a part in a
dramatic and poetically, beautiful action scene.

Bale redeems himself considerably,
ironically around the same time that Miller does. After donning the priest’s
robes and getting drunk he assumes the role of priest and protector when the
Japanese come calling and make clear their intentions for the innocent girls.
It’s as the heroic Miller that Bale shines, the horror etched on his face when
he understands the true atrocities intended by the invaders, is there for all
to see. He is ably supported by the newcomers in the cast. Most of the
courtesans and children are making their debuts in the film and are all utterly
convincing.

The Flowers of War illustrates the
self-sacrifice and humanity that the most dire of circumstances can bring about
in all of us and it unflinchingly portrays the flipside, the brutality and
sheer evil that war can bring.

Curiosity about Bale in a Chinese film –
although it’s mostly in English – should get bums on seats and while The Flowers of War is a little over
long it is a rewarding and recommended experience.

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