The Flowers of War

| July 11, 2012

With The Dark Knight Rises right around the corner, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Christian Bale in the near future. But before his next outing as the Caped Crusader, audiences can check out Bale starring in the new Blu-ray/DVD release of The Flowers of War courtesy of Lionsgate.  Directed by Zhang Yimou (HeroCurse of the Golden Flower), The Flowers of War is a devastatingly beautiful historical epic chronicling the events surrounding the 1937 occupation of Nanking by the Japanese (a deplorable event in world history also known as the Rape of Nanking).  In the great tradition of The African Queen and Father Goose, Bale stars as an American stuck in a foreign land and forced to suffer through an ordeal that, while appearing only to reinforce his cynicism, ends up placing him on the path to salvation.  Prone to drinking and concerned only with money, Bale is a mortician in Nanking for the burial of a renowned priest.  He arrives just as the Japanese enter Nanking and begin their assault on the city.  Bale survives the bombings and the gunfire as the Japanese slaughter the meager Chinese forces tasked with protecting their homeland, and as the bullets fly, he runs into two young girls who are trying to return to their convent at the same church he is trying to find.

Treating the church as a sanctuary, Bale, the convent girls, and the young boy running the church following the priest’s departure are soon joined by the unlikeliest of church patrons: The women from the red-light district.  The film proceeds to chart Bale’s rediscovery of his soul, a journey that begins with a drunken decision to stumble around the church in the dead priest’s wardrobe and that is followed by Japanese soldiers taking him to be the resident priest.  As Bale’s altruism is ignited, the women of the red-light district and the young girls of the convent also learn painful lessons in community and sacrifice.

As the actor with the most substantial resume, Bale not surprisingly dominates the film, believably portraying the cynical boozehound but even more impressively playing the emotionally scarred protector experiencing the reopening of old wounds in the face of new hardships.  For all of Bale’s acting finesse, however, the greatest surprise of this film is the exceptional cast of newcomers.  Director Yimou went to great lengths to cast young, fresh-faced talent who could lend the film a degree of authenticity, and he succeeded splendidly, most notably with the casting of the female lead, Yu Mo (Ni Ni).  As the head prostitute, Ni Ni is just as brilliant putting on femme fatale airs as she is tearfully facing the horrors of war.

The Flowers of War is the type of film Hollywood all-too-rarely makes.  Genre hybridity is nothing new in the world of moviemaking, but the type of genre mixing going on in this film—it begins as a war film that rivals the visceral immediacy of Saving Private Ryan, turns into a “worlds collide” comedy-drama with the mixture of the prostitutes and the convent girls with Bale’s awkward American stuck in the middle, and ultimately becomes a moving drama of humanity’s commensurate potential for evil and nobility—makes it a very special film indeed.  Yimou shoots the film superbly, capturing the violent intensity of the battle scenes with an action director’s eye but then also filming the intimate scenes of dialogue with patient sensitivity.

An epic tale of love, honor, and sacrifice, The Flowers of War is one of the most impressive films in recent memory, and even though he has here traded the cowl for the cloth, Bale is no less heroic in striving to save the lives of innocent victims of war, and finding his own salvation in the process.

About the Author:

Kyle Barrowman is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition to his work for Film Monthly, he has previously published essays for Cashiers du Cinemart, Offscreen, and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, on subjects ranging from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee.
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