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'The Flowers of War': The Rape of Nanking.


Some might remember Christian Bale's debut performance in 1987 as a young English boy who found himself in the middle of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. This film was called "Empire of the Sun," and it was directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard. Shot by a Westerner, it was nevertheless a great film, a coming-of-age tale set against a realistic portrayal of a period in Chinese history.

Bale returns to China for the leading role in Chinese director Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War," this time as an alcoholic American mortician. Bale once again finds himself in the middle of the Japanese invasion, this time in Nanking in the 1930s, which was at the time the capital of the country. It is as if Bale's childhood role has transformed into a jaded grown-up version in this film, which is all about cheapened acts of courage, in a maudlin atmosphere, with a macabre, bloody aesthetic. How unfortunate.

Yimou is the director of many interesting films, the most famous being "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" -- epic films that were set in the heyday of the Chinese dynasty, telling tales of heroic warriors fighting for honor and love. They were highly enjoyable, entertaining and brilliantly choreographed action films. "The Flowers of War" might have been the right choice for Yimou's next cinematic endeavor had he remembered that the historic events of the Rape of Nanking cannot unfold as an entertaining thriller. Watching blood spurting out of war victims as if it were taking place in a video game does not add value to this sad story, it only aggravates the viewer.

The spectacle opens with shots of people running in the destroyed streets of the city as Japanese soldiers murder and rape the inhabitants. A handful of girl students manage to seek refuge in a vast missionary cathedral on the outskirts of the city in which they had once studied. A young boy called George (an orphan Chinese boy adopted by the deceased priest of the church) helps them. Then there is the drunken mortician John Miller (Bale), who strong-arms his way into the church to escape the soldiers as well. He is selfish and only cares about getting out of the city. The students beg him to protect them and lead them out of the city, but he's not having any of it. Then come a handful of beautiful Chinese prostitutes who also seek refuge in the church. They hide out in the underground wine cellars and John falls in love with their leader Yu Mo (Ni Ni), an admirable and tough woman.

This is supposedly a narrative of transformation, and so John eventually finds himself protecting all the women by pretending to be the designated priest. He is a man rediscovering his conscience. The Japanese come to the church, but as it is neutral territory at first they are reluctant to exercise violence. Note that there is only one decent Japanese officer, and the rest of the soldiers are plane scumbags.

But this is war, and the Japanese soldiers plot a devious strategy to get the virgin girl students out of the church, so that they can rape them and then murder them. They are not aware of the prostitutes in the cellar. A "glorious" act of valor comes out of this situation in which the prostitutes volunteer to pretend to be the students and take their place during a party at the house of a Japanese general. For some reason, despite all the horrible events occurring outside the church walls, it becomes a matter of life and death to protect the virginity of the real students, and we are told that this should be our only concern, as if saving the girls is the only way to give the horrific events some kind of meaning. It is indeed a very dire situation, and anyone watching this film's story should be concerned for the girls and prostitutes alike, but there is no depth to any of the characters in the screenplay, despite the great performances from Ni Ni and Bale. The characters do not come alive and remain solely pawns of the formulaic plot devices of Yimou and his colleagues, setting off their visual mastery and amazing set pieces.

The cinematography is alluring and definitely takes you back to the time and place, but a bit of tenderness and understanding towards the characters would not have been so bad.

As I stated before, visual mastery is not enough to generate genuine emotion in the viewer and allow them to grasp this specific time in history, a time that brings shame to humanity and in no way calls for a gloat-fest of violence. "The Flowers of War" is a film that I had many hopes for, but now wish to forget. CyHAN

Copyright 2012 Cihan News Agency. All right reserved.

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Publication:Cihan News Agency (CNA)
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Aug 26, 2012
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