Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Huang Tianyuan, Zhang Xinyi
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“I am not a priest!” That’s Christian Bale as John, a mortician who finds himself in Nanking in 1937. One hour later and he’s standing in a church, wearing a dog collar, and shouting: “This is the house of the Lord! I am the priest!”
It’s the first of many lies in Zhang Yimou’s unflinching war epic. Inspired by accounts of Americans trying to help shield the Chinese from Japan’s infamous Rape of Nanking (a six-week period of occupation in which soldiers brutally raped and slaughtered civilians), it sees John wind up in an abandoned church surrounded by young orphans. The invading troops soon take an interest in the group. Faced with the assault first-hand, he tries to help. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he tells them. That’s another lie.
Why should they trust him? There’s no reason to. He’s an alcoholic, a foreigner and he’s certainly not a priest. But his gruff, selfish exterior inevitably gives way to a soft heart, a change symbolised by the fact that he shaves his beard. Then, suddenly, he’s a hero to root for. He helps the children get food, tries to plan an escape, and lets a gang of sex workers shelter in the church with them.
It’s the kind of transformation that defines these stereotypical dramas about reluctant heroes – the only thing more clichéd than bringing in a white American to explain another country’s history. But while The Flowers of War is guilty of both of these tropes, the film has a trick up his sleeve: Zhang Yimou is directing.
After his forced remake of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, it’s a relief to see the director back in familiar, stunning territory. Handheld cameras appear during tense moments of fear among the kids, while graceful zooms and lighting bring out the delicate beauty of the location. Even the action, which is few and far between, is nail-biting stuff, as we watch one sniper try to take out an entire platoon of soldiers on a dilapidated building site.
As a Chinese-Western co-production looking to play to international audiences, it’s no surprise that other familiar tropes rear their heads – an enemy officer who isn’t like the rest because he enjoys classical music – but Heng Liu’s script turns them into catalysts for yet more grisly terror. And, thanks to stellar performances from Huang Tianyuan’s young sidekick and Ni’s leader, Yu Mo, that horror really hits home.
But never more so than when Christian Bale is on screen. You may not buy into Yimou’s ambitious dream of a broad multinational project, but Bale is on electric form as the American lead – it’s impossible not to be moved as he fibs to the kids to keep them calm. You could change the film’s title to “Christian Bale Lies to Children for 2 Hours” and you would still well up. Despite its clichéd concept, The Flowers of War is a beautiful, harrowing historical drama that leaves you peeking at the brutality of war through a stained glass window. And if anyone tells you they didn’t cry during the final act? They’re lying too.
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