Director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) strived for perfection when making his latest epic, The Flowers of War, and while he may have fallen short of that particular goal, he still succeeded in creating one of the most beautiful, yet harrowing war-centric films in recent years.
Based off the novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing by Geling Yan, The Flowers of War is a fictitious account of true events that happened during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The film takes place in and around a church in Nanjing, which was supposed to be viewed as neutral ground in the surrounding battle between the Japanese and Chinese, and a safe haven for the innocents within. Inside the church, a group of convent girls and George (Huang Tianyuan), the young adopted son of the former priest, all do what they can to try and get through each day. Soon, an American mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale) arrives to complete his assigned duty of burying the former priest. Since the children can’t pay him, Miller decides to take solace in the priest’s large, comfy room, while drowning away his worries in the alcohol that he quickly sniffs out.
Not long after, a group of prostitutes from the Red Light District of Nanjing arrive at the gate, demanding to be let in. When refused entry by George, they take matters into their own hands, climb over the wall and open the gate themselves. The young girls inside are enamored by the beauty and actions of these women, though that quickly changes for some when certain living arrangements (such as bathroom use) come into play. Of course, Miller is excited by the prospects their new guests bring to the table. But when he finds himself in the position of having to protect both parties from an incoming attack of women-hungry Japanese soldiers, he realizes the true horror of the situation they’re in, and begins to plan a way to get them all to safety before it’s too late.
While The Flowers of War is a beautifully shot film, with fantastic cinematography, and fantastic set-pieces, it can get incredibly hard to watch at times. The film is absolutely unrelenting when it comes to the amount of violence it shows on screen, and I’m not just talking about soldiers being shot and killed, as that’s something we expect to see when entering a war-based film. No, the violence I’m speaking of is that of women and children being killed on screen, with no punches being pulled by the filmmaker whatsoever. This will likely turn some viewers off, as it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch; however, it’s done because that’s how it is, war is brutal and that’s what we see, and the film’s themes and story are stronger because of it.
Yimou’s direction is truly astonishing, as his vision to bring this story to life in such a dramatic and realistic way really helps give the film the emotional punch needed to show the true bravery, and heroics of the characters involved. There’s a constant sense of tension, as Yimou constantly switches back between incoming threats and explosions to more character driven moments at the drop of a hat. He also does a good job of telling the story through the eyes of one of the 13 year-old girls, whose curiosity keeps her in the mix of pretty much everything.
The Flowers of War is, of course, a story about these young girls and the women from the Red Light District, and not about John Miller – even though he arguably plays the central character in the film. The true story that this film is based off of is from the accounts of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who ran a girl’s college in Nanjing during this time. While a female could have been placed in the role, the contrast of having a male in the lead not only helps balance the story somewhat, it also broadens the mass appeal of the film, which I’m sure was also a leading factor in the decision. There was also a German man by the name of John Rabe who helped shelter 200,000 Chinese from slaughter during this time, so the character of John Miller could very well be a mix of both Vaurtin and Rabe set inside this story.
The acting in this film is actually quite extraordinary, considering almost all of the Chinese actresses in the film had absolutely no experience before making this movie. Before I was even aware of this, I thought that the job done by the women in this film was incredibly strong, especially considering the harsh tone the film constantly forced upon them throughout. Bale is also fantastic, and a wonderful anchor for these novice actresses to play off of. He has several scenes where he’s just a demanding presence, and really showcases his abilities on screen, and if anything, his star status will help get this story seen by people that may have otherwise passed it by.
The Flowers of War is the most expensive film ever to come from China, and in my opinion, they got their money’s worth. The film is visually stunning, and also absolutely heart-wrenching; however, it’s an important story to tell. So often the focus is purely on the main events of the major wars, so it’s good to know that this lesser known story is out there so that people can learn of the heroism, bravery and honour of those involved.
The video transfer to Blu-ray is fantastic, with rich colours highlighting the aspects Yimou was going for, while the earthy, dull, war-torn look and feel of the city surrounding the church really give off a sense of hopelessness and destruction. The audio is also superbly transferred, with clean sound effects really bringing certain parts of the picture to life, and a beautifully composed soundtrack that really stand out and hits all the right emotional chords.
The special features are a behind-the-scenes look that’s broken up into four parts. It’s a bit roughly edited; however, it gives a good look into the filmmaking process that Yimou went through, and how much pressure he felt with this massive production being on his shoulders.
The Birth of The Flowers of War – This featurette comes in at just over 21 minutes in length, and sees Yimou talking about the creation of the project, and how it took years to figure out how to bring it to life properly. There’s also a quick montage of the creation of the church, and the surrounding broken city, which was all built on 250 acres of land in China and shot on location.
Meeting Christian Bale – This featurette runs at just over 16 minutes in length, and focuses primarily on what the cast and crew thought of Bale, and his work ethic on set. Yimou mainly talks about how Bale helped in the English translation of the English speaking lines (which were roughly 40% of the film’s dialogue) so that they came off sounding more natural, while also just being a pleasure to work with, never delivering the same performance take after take. There are a few pieces of an on-set interview with Bale, though the audio is horrible and it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. Luckily there are a few subtitles even for his lines, which helps out a bit.
The Newborn Stars – This featurette is just over 22 minutes in length and it shows just how novice the actresses in the film were when they started. Most, if not all of them had never been in a film production before, and it’s funny to hear them talk about how they don’t know what a “mark” is, or why the microphone has fur all over it.
Hard Time During War – This featurette is a bit over 20 minutes in length, and is basically a look at some of the war scenes shot in the street outside the church. It’s an interesting watch, and we see how Yimou wants perfection from his cast and crew, take after take. It looks as though it was a grueling shoot, though it paid off in the end.
Perfection of Light and Colour – This featurette runs at just under 14 minutes in length, and is mainly about the stain glass window which plays an important part in producing the colours Yimou is going for in certain shots.
The Flowers of War is definitely one of the most heart-wrenching war films I’ve seen in a long time, and while I highly recommend it, it’s understandable that there are many who won’t be able to handle it. It’s a beautifully shot film that tells a story based on true events that people should know about, and Yimou and the rest of the cast and crew should be proud of the film they created.
Lionsgate presents The Flowers of War. Directed by: Zhang Yimou. Written by: Heng Liu. Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tong Dawei, Atsuro Watabe, Cao Kefan, Shigeo Kobayashi, Huang Tianyuan, Han Xiting, Zhang Doudou. Yuan Yangchunzi, Sun Jia, Li Yuemin, Bai Xue, Takashi Yamanaka. Running time: 143 minutes. Rating: R. Released: August 14, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Atsuro Watabe, Bai Xue, Cao Kefan, Christian Bale, Han Xiting, Huang Tianyuan, Li Yuemin, Nanjing, Ni Ni, Shigeo Kobayashi, Sun Jia, Takashi Yamanaka, The Flowers of War, Tong Dawei, Zhang Doudou. Yuan Yangchunzi, Zhang Yimou