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Overall Rating

Awesome: 13.33%
Worth A Look: 6.67%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap40%

2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Flowers of War, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Just doesn't smell right."
3 stars

It sort of makes sense when Hollywood makes a movie about something that happened outside the borders of America and Europe but makes a white guy the protagonist - silly, but understandable. When a Chinese filmmaker decides that his Chinese movie about the Rape of Nanking should star Christian Bale - that's kind of weird. But then, a lot of things about "The Flowers of War" seem ill-conceived, and Zhang Yimou's ability to occasionally make it work only makes it more problematic.

As the movie opens in 1937, the Chinese capital of Nanking is falling to the Japanese in an invasion and occupation just as ugly as its name implies. While the Chinese army crumbles, several parties are converging on a Catholic Church that they hope will offer sanctuary: The late abbot's teenage adopted son, George Chen (Huang Tianyuan), has about a dozen girls from its convent school who were unable to get on the last boat out; a group including Meng Shujuan (Zhang Xinyi), the girl who believed her father would get them out, that was separated in the confusion; Major Li (Tong Dawei), an excellent sharpshooter who carries the only other surviving member of the unit, a boy too young to be much more than a mascot; and John Miller (Bale), an American mortician sent to handle the abbot's funeral arrangements. They'll soon be joined by a dozen ladies from a local brothel, whose elegant de facto leader, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), learned English when she attended a convent school in her youth. It soon becomes very clear that the church and Miller's white face can only offer so much sanctuary - and the guards posted around the gate by Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe) are not exactly for the girls' safety.

The opening minutes of The Flowers of War are a breathtaking series of horrors, as Zhang Yimou combines his penchant for striking visuals with increasingly desperate and tragic situations. It temporarily strands the audience in the surreal environment of the world at war, and if the whole movie was like that, it would be an impressive achievement: two hours of randomness, shell-shock, and almost casual atrocity. Of course, that would be difficult to sustain and even more difficult to sell, so things settle down a little, and then the prostitutes show up.

And once they're involved, the movie stumbles, often badly. There's too many of them in a movie that's already crowded with a dozen schoolgirls, they make a lot of noise without doing much for a good chunk of the story, and they exist for reasons that are rather cynical: They are needed in the end and won't be so much of a deus ex machna if they're hiding in the basement for the previous two hours, except for when a couple make a stupid decision that puts everyone in danger. If you're really cynical, Zhang and screenwriter Liu Heng (adapting a novel by Yan Geling) also spend much of the movie building them up as ultimately being women of decent character (if ill repute), especially by showing us Mo as being a force to be reckoned with, only to fall back on "they're just whores" later on, although it's at least acknowledged and mostly works as the ennobling move it's meant to be. There are other sloppy bits in the script, though, like a need to give John and Mo backstories that allow them to be noble toward the end, which is not just a step further than necessary, but makes John's mercenary nature at the beginning of the film seem retroactively out of character.

A shame, because Bale does scuzzy well; those early scenes of Miller being every kind of coward and jerk set things up quite well for his eventual (and inevitable) growth. Bale is good when Miller has evolved into a more heroic figure, too, although in both cases there are certain familiar affectations to his performance. The sophisticated bearing Ni Ni gives Mo is a nice contrast to Miller's earthiness, and she is able to command the screen quite thoroughly from start to finish. There's nice work by some of the supporting cast, too, although few ever threaten to steal a scene from Bale or Ni.

The general look of the film does - even when Zhang was making films with much smaller budgets, they were always striking; now he's working with a budget that would rival a big Hollywood production (indeed, I suspect there's a big international star and a lot of English dialogue in this because even tremendous ticket sales in the Chinas won't cover the budget). The photography and production design are beautiful - too beautiful at times, really. Impressive shots of the light catching a stained glass window will often hide the bullet holes rather than emphasize them. Sometimes Zhang and company are able to use these moments of beauty so that something horrifying hits even harder, but all too often, it's just a pretty picture, and one has to wonder if it's any more appropriate than the moments between John Miller and Yu Mo that come perilously close to romantic comedy banter.

At times, "The Flowers of War" seems to want to be a Chinese "Schindler's List", and while some may dismiss what Steven Spielberg did in that film, he committed to and hit his targets. Zhang tries to walk this tightrope, but winds up all too often looking over his shoulder instead of at the goal. As a result, while he is able to come up with a film that works well much of the time, his missteps are so calamitous as to that they are quite likely to be what one remembers.

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originally posted: 01/25/12 12:18:10
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User Comments

3/17/14 Hao luong pretty good movie 4 stars
8/01/13 Mary Field Superb 5 stars
1/29/12 Sara 5 stars heartbreaking, have a box of tissues near by. 5 stars
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  DVD: 10-Jul-2012


  DVD: 10-Jul-2012

Directed by
  Yimou Zhang

Written by
  Heng Liu

  Christian Bale
  Paul Schneider
  Xinyi Zhang
  Ni Ni
  Shigeo Kobayashi
  Atsuro Watabe

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