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The Flowers of War
Genre War
 
Review:

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II describes events leading up the 1937-1938 Nanking Massacre with an account of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. The controversial book was one of the first to introduce the massacre to the world in the English-language and inspired Geling Yan to write 13 Flowers of Nanking, the novella that inspired The Flowers of War, a film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale.

The Flowers of War is an epic historical war drama that portrays the attempts of a American mortician to lead a group of Chinese school girls and prostitutes to safety after taking refuge in a Nanking Catholic church. Geling Yan's novel was inspired by Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary, who ran a college for girls. The character was adapted into a man, possibly an allusion to another Nanking hero, German businessman, John Rabe. The forgotten hero used his Nazi party membership to save hundreds of thousands of lives during the massacre.

Zhang Yimou is an established director, credited with Chinese epics like Hero, The House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower. Although you get the impression that Zhang Yimou directed The Flowers of War as something of a tribute to Hollywood juggernaut, Steven Spielberg. The film's theme is comparable with Schindler's List, depicting a hopeful story in a time of unspeakable brutality. The Nanjing war scenes are reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, while casting Christian Bale echoes Empire of the Sun.

Christian Bale is a first-rate actor and delivers a solid, emotionally-charged lead performance as John Miller. Some would say he's too central to the film, although his character does offer the insight of an outsider. He's supported by the graceful Ni Ni as Yu Mo, the "mother" of the prostitutes and Tianyuan Huang as the church sentry and alter boy, George. The rest of the ensemble are composed of fully committed actors, many of whom are debutantes.

The Flowers of War is emotionally powerful, waving a flicker of hope to keep spirits high amid all the horror. This level of emotion is heightened as the atrocities of war are laid out in all their bloodthirsty savagery making it difficult to watch at times. These scenes are horrific, even though Zhang doesn't dwell on them, but create a realistic atmosphere of wartime dread, in which Japanese soldiers run amok in Nanking.

Yimou's film is based on real events, but The Flowers of War does come across as nationalistic. While the higher ranking Japanese officers are treated with more respect, the rest of the forces are depicted as bloodthirsty rapists. It's a spectacular epic, which engenders some powerful imagery, but whether intentional or not, it tends to slip in and out of war propaganda mode.

This seems almost unavoidable in a film where the line of good and evil is so clearly defined. The Chinese women are "flowers" - beautiful, delicate, sometimes thorny yet vulnerable and the Japanese men are generally represented as a group of war-mongering soldiers, who treat their raping, killing and pillaging like a game of cat and mouse.

The Flowers of War features breathtaking visuals, straying into magic realism, with beautiful stained glass window lighting contrasting against the dull mire of a war-torn Nanking. Zhang Yimou's vivid storytelling is somewhat surreal, bejeweled with precious movie moments, ranging from melodramatic and contrived to resonant and gripping.

Despite its nationalistic, melodramatic and brutal tendencies, The Flowers of War is a beautiful, powerful and captivating war drama. It's an oxymoron for war and peace, love and hate and life and death that attracts and repels its audience in a minefield of contrasting themes and emotions, making it a beautiful, disturbing and cathartic kaleidoscope of a film experience.

The bottom line: Powerful

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