The most expensive Chinese film of all time at a price tag of $90 million, right before the US premiere of this film, Christian Bale was involved in a fight with some Chinese prison guards that wouldn’t let him see a famous political prisoner. The latest film from the stylistic Yimou Zhang, it’s the story of 1939 Nanking, China, where the Japanese military has advanced into the city and demolished most of its final defenders. A small band of Chinese Army fighters saves a group of orphan school girls from the approaching Japanese Army, and by the time their tanks pass into the city, everyone from the Chinese regiment is dead, except Major Li (Dawei Tong), who watches the girls to safety while trying to formulate a plan of his own.
Drifting through all of this is American John Miller (Christian Bale) who has come to Nanking to bury the priest at the local parish, and when he runs into the orphan girls on the street, hiding from the Japanese military, they lead him back to the church, which is a sanctuary the Japanese military cannot attack. Being a white man from the west helps him too, as Japanese soldiers have been told not to engage Westerners in any way, for fear of an international incident that would bring earlier involvement in the war. Being a bit of a drunken burn out, Miller takes advantage of the sanctuary, and he’s delighted when Yu Mo (Ni Ni) and her fellow ladies of the night show up at the church looking for sanctuary, promised to them by a horny run-away cook.
When the Japanese Army ignores the Red Cross flag and proceeds to attempt to rape the young virgin girls, Miller decides he has no choice but to try to save them, so he dons a robe and calls himself a priest, telling the Japanese Army to leave immediately, which they listen to for a moment, but the only thing that can save Miller and the girls is a firefight between the nearby Japanese Army and Major Li, who has rigged a street to have a big showdown with the army.
As Major Li makes his last stand, a Colonel named Hasegawa comes to tell Miller that he respects the house of the lord and that he guarantees their safety, despite the fact that one girl was frivolously killed by his army already. Miller takes the deal, as it’s the only one he’s going to get, and decides to stay and act priest to this house full of orphaned girls and displaced prostitutes.
George, the only boy at the convent, and the only one to take care of them besides John, warns that they must get out of Nanking as soon as possible, and persuades John to fix the broken down truck that is in the yard of the church. The only problem is the Japanese guards at the gate will get suspicious if they hear them working on the truck, so he must do it slowly, and silently. When Colonel Hasegawa comes back, he informs John that the choir will sing for a Japanese celebration of the occupation of Nanking, and when John tells Hasegawa they can’t go, he informs John that it’s a military order. John must face the futility of his task and act quickly, he is not given the time to plan any longer.
They plan their escape, and of course there are still obstacles yet to be seen, and it becomes a “will they or won’t they make it?” movie. The first three quarters of the film are far too predictable and exactly what you expect. Everything is big and epic, the scenes with military firefights are actually pretty prolonged and intense, but really, they offer little to the final story that Major Li’s story didn’t already provide about the war itself. The Chinese were heavily out-gunned, and that’s the point that is made over and over in this film.
There are a lot of sequences in this film that only seem to pad the nearly 150 minute run time, it makes the film feel slow and heavy. It also sets a specific, slow pace, which is common in Chinese films, but with the marriage of the big Hollywood foreign epic, it just doesn’t work. Bale is trying for Lawrence of Arabia, but he comes up short, and there is even a scene or two where he severely over-acts.
The cast of girls, both the prostitutes and the orphans, represent different types of interesting characters, but despite the run time, only two of them get any substantial amount of screen time, and one is an obligatory character that I would expect to see in a lesser movie. The Chinese/English language barrier is a problem for the Chinese actors who have heavy accents, and Christian Bale, who says maybe 10 words in Japanese and Mandarin throughout the entire film. The print I saw had Chinese and English subtitles, which I believe was a helpful decision. Yimou Zhang is known for the stylish way he typically designs the visuals of his films, and there are often sequences where his signature eye for interesting visuals is on display. However, they often don’t serve the story, and shots that need to move stay static, too often during the action sequences.
The Flowers of War is not a failure, it’s just nothing special. Yes, it was the most expensive movie the country has made, but at the same time, it’s an overly sentimental, emotionally manipulative film. Instead of letting the audience feel emotions based on what is happening to the characters and how they feel about those actions affecting those characters, the film attempts to force you to feel sorry for the characters based purely on circumstance and nostalgia for times lost, rather than serving the story being told. The fact that everything in the film is so predictable and by-the-numbers almost hurts it more than if it had attempt bold statements and failed. When a movie plays it safe, especially at 150 minutes, there is always the potential to make a bloated film, and that is exactly what has happened here. Not bad, just common.