The Flowers Of War (Jin líng shí san chai)

China (2011) Dir. Zhang Yimou

Nanking, 1937 and the Japanese have occupied the Chinese town where American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale), who as a western is exempt from Japanese violence, is headed for a Catholic church to prepare the corpse of the late resident father for his funeral. Upon arrival, all he finds is a young boy George Chen (Huang Tianyuan) and a group of young orphan girls and no money so John sticks around to find some valuables and take advantage of the comfort of the late father’s bed.

The next day a group of high class prostitutes from Qin Huai River arrive at the church hoping it will provide them sanctuary from the Japanese and take over the basement. After a drunken night when John unsuccessfully tries to woo Yu Mo (Ni Ni) one of the prostitutes, he dresses up in the priests smock just as a small group of Japanese soldiers break into the church and try to rape some of the younger girls. In order to protect the orphans, the prostitutes and himself, John assumes the role of the priest to find a way for everyone to evade the Japanese and get out of Nanking.

The “Raping of Nanking” is one of the most horrific and notorious moments in Asian history and the key factor in the often frosty relationship between Japan and China. While the Japanese Government has since apologised many times for their actions in this terrible massacre, there are some officials who deny this ever happened.

This story has been the subject of other films before, most notably Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death and City of War: The Story of John Rabe from German director Florian Gallenberger which focuses on the “German Schindler” who saved 200,000 Chinese during this period. Now, legendary Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou has returned to the big screen epic after a few low key releases with his adaptation of the novel The 13 Women of Nanjing by Geling Yan.

In John Miller we have a drunken, selfish mercenary who clearly cares little for anyone but himself as he is quick to demonstrate. Once the haughty prostitutes arrive – yes, they look down on other people!! – he succumbs to the allure of the rather stunning Yu Mo who wants John to fix the broken truck outside and help the girls escape Nanking and he wile b repaid in kind by all of them.

When George asked for help John says its cash or nothing; the promise of a bunk up from Yu Mo and suddenly he can’t find a spanner fast enough! Even after masquerading as a priest to fend off the rampaging Japanese soldiers, john admits he is not up for the job and wants to go but the death of two girls and the subsequent arrival of a Japanese officer Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe) offering an apology, John finds himself entrenched in the role and taking his new mission seriously.

A purely fictional yarn, Yimou’s account is quite graphic in places, the most unsettling moments being the attempted rape of the young orphan girls which will shock and appal in equal measure. Some might argue that you can’t tell a war story without showing the horrors of it but this may just be a rare example of when some restraint would have been a preferred option. It must have been harrowing for the young, largely inexperienced actors so kudos goes to them for such compelling performances under the circumstances.

Also worthy of praise is Ni Ni who makes her debut here with an assured and confident performance as smouldering hooker Yu Mo. Yimou takes a big gamble for an Asian filmmaker by building his film around a Hollywood star, in this case Bale, since the history of Asian directors and Western actors has been demonstrably iffy. This may just be where the corner has been turned as Bale does great job here, surrounded as he is by both Chinese and Japanese actors – although it doesn’t take him long to slip into his now seemingly default setting of husky, whispering Batman Bale!

Yimou is known for his grandiose and colourful visual style which one would assume would not be congruent for a war based tale. However, Yimou cleverly circumvents this with a multicoloured stained glassed window to break up the bleakness of the desolate church along with the stunning dresses of the prostitutes.

Much of Yimou’s other cinematic flourishes are present but he is careful not to go overboard at the risk of compromising the grim mood of the film’s background. If anything this is arguably his most accessible film for an international audience presumably due to Bale’s involvement and the decision to submit this for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at this year’s awards. To that end we are subject to a few schmaltzy and slick scenes of romantic dalliances and forced sentimentality hitherto hidden away in previous Yimou works.

It bears reminding that The Flowers Of War IS a fictional tale set during a real period of history; anyone looking for something a bit more substantial in the educational department need to look elsewhere. We do however get a feeling for what it must have been like for the youngsters at that time and it is not difficult to be moved by what is shown here. Accept this film for what it is, a powerful war time drama, and you’ll be grandly rewarded.