The Flowers Of War

(Jin lîng shí san chai)

Emotionally shattering, The Flowers Of War is best film from the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou since Raise The Red Lantern.

In the winter of 1937, after Japan conquered and destroyed Shanghai, Emperor Hirohito’s cruelty and ruthless thirst for power shifted to Nanking. More than 200,000 people were massacred, including the Chinese army, and only a handful of ordinary people fought to survive. Their bravery and heroism have become legendary in China. This is the true story of an American mortician named John Miller, brilliantly played by Christian Bale, who miraculously makes his way through the fire, mortar and bombs to prepare a murdered Catholic priest for burial. When he reaches the church, a small altar boy is the only one left to offer shelter to the homeless.

Poster Art for The Flowers Of War

Having already missed the last boat out of the harbour before the Japanese takeover, John hides out in the church himself, sharing space with 13 terrified convent girls and a group of abandoned prostitutes. As the fumes of powder and perfume waft up through the rafters, the painted women and the innocent virgins all turn to him as a kind of surrogate saviour. Far from being a saint, he’s a thief, an adventurer and a drunken war profiteer. But he is also inexplicably transformed by the plight of these women and children to find a conscience he thought buried long ago.

The Flowers Of War is profoundly involving on many levels. Clocking in at 141 minutes, it requires patience, but the rewards are numerous. Zhang Yimou finds human revelations in small places and small faces, as seen both through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, forced to age prematurely while she watches the conflict from a hole in a stained-glass window, and through the gun sights of the last Chinese soldier in Nanking. This is a director who knows how to tell a story from many points of view by slowly building myriad characters simultaneously: the opportunist who risks his own life to save the convent girls from rape; the two prostitutes who meet a mortifying fate at the hands of Japanese soldiers; the father who goes to work for the enemy to get his daughter out of Nanking; even the Japanese commander who ploughs through grenades, corpses and crushing debris for one chance to play the cathedral organ.

But the centre of the film is still the whores themselves, who make the ultimate sacrifice to save the convent girls. After six years in a convent as a child, beatific Yu Mo has empathy for the girls huddled together in the church. By the time she had reached their age, she was already forced to take her first clients. Her special appeal for the American is completely understandable. She has education, she speaks English, and she’s the one who devises the courageous plan to save the virgins from tragedy.

It’s rare for a bankable star like Christian Bale to collaborate with a foreign director and appear in a film of this magnitude, but having once appeared as an English boy trapped in Japan’s invasion of China in Steven Spielberg’s great 1987 film Empire Of The Sun, he has remained intrigued by the period. With an unheard-of budget for a Chinese film of $100 million, his diligent work and the punishment of the no-frills location shooting in China pay off handsomely. In the role of Yu Mo, Zhang Yimou has discovered a new Gong Li in the luminous, radiant actress Ni Ni. At 23, she is on her way to what I predict will be a big career. The Flowers Of War is not perfect, but it’s a special film of sacrifice, redemption and hope that packs an emotional wallop from which there is no escape. I can’t get it out of my thoughts, and I recommend it highly.

– Rex Reed, The New York Observer

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