The Flowers of War is a harrowing historical epic directed by Zhang Yimou, the man behind Hero, Houses of the Flying Daggers and the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
The Flowers of War is fictitiously set in 1937 Nanjing, China, in the midst of the Sino-Japanese war in which Christian Bale plays John Miller, an American mortician who is summoned to Nanjing to bury a deceased priest, only to take on the role of defending young schoolgirls along with an ensemble of prostitutes and escape from the invading Japanese army. On the surface, this may be a story of redemption since Miller arrives on the scene as a lazy drunkard and opportunist. Yet, when faced with the catastrophe of the Japanese invasion, he becomes a man of integrity and source of hope for the innocent schoolgirls and ‘fallen women,’ eventually ‘saving’ both them and himself. The story is narrated by one of the schoolgirls. Indeed, they symbolize the innocence of humanity, and also of China, and therefore must be preserved.
Rather than on focusing on the politics, the film is ‘more a movie about human beings and the nature of human beings,’ Bale highlighted to the BBC. The Nanjing massacre of 1937 was a terrible conflict that resulted in nearly 300000 Chinese civilians being slaughtered by the Japanese army after capturing Nanjing, China’s formal capital.
The story is one of many emotions, of courage, of life and death amidst savage atrocities. Nevertheless, one disappointing note is that the film takes a rather simplistic and narrow approach and fails to view from alternative angles. Unlike Yimou’s approach, Lu Chuan’s more nuanced and sombre City of Life and Death (2009), however does attempt to examine the impossible choices faced by the Japanese army during this infamous massacre period.
Overall, Flowers of War is visually impressive like most of Yimou’s films, from the striking photography to the frenetic battle scenes shot and staged with notable verisimilitude; the cinematography is indeed breath-taking at times. On numerous occasions, Yimou’ use of colour is immensely powerful: the women’s exotic qipaos and the bright stained glass window, moments in which colour shines through the jaded blur of war, ephemeral glimmers of hope which contrasts markedly to the shocking streaks of red on tips of bayonets. Yimou has achieved a credible and poignant job of retelling an incredibly difficult historical period through his trademark use of artistic cinematography.