A pale rehashing of one of the most disgraceful war crimes in modern history.
Director Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Not One Less”) continues his string of lush sagas displaying grace and beauty in the context of violence and death. Adding to Zhang’s impressive collection of awards, “Flowers” has been chosen as China’s Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
Christian Bale plays John Miller, hard drinking expatriate ne’er-do-well, who is forced to make a choice between right and wrong and the time he would least expect it. Ni Ni plays “river girl” Yu Mo who finds her redemption at the same time Miller finds his.
Unfortunately, “Flowers” comes off as a bit too much of a formula piece. It is trying to capitalize on the success of “Schindler’s List” and similar WWII redemption vehicles. Actually, it has more in common with “In Darkness,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, to be released this February, 2012.
In both cases, the working Joe first takes advantage of a situation for his own ends and then finds out his conscience will not let him off the hook. As the story progresses, the once greedy everyman is catapulted into sainthood. Bogart excelled in this role in “Casablanca” and “African Queen,” however, Bale is no Bogart and Heng Liu (screenplay) is not able to phrase this situation in the Western vernacular.
This film will not take the Rape of Nanking mantle away from the much superior Florian Gallenberger success “John Rabe” (2009). Director Yimou Zhang should have watched “John Rabe” more closely and observed how to produce redemption and sainthood without clubbing the audience over the head with stereotypes. Compared to “Rabe,” “Flowers” is a cartoon. It shows such exaggerated personalities that the audience is not given a chance to feel the depth of the emotional breakdown involved.
In the opening scenes, Bale is simply having too much fun at a time when he should be bottoming out, such as Bogart in “African Queen.”
Even worse, Bale’s performance in this film will inevitably be compared to his tour-de-force as Mark Wahlberg’s bottoming-out brother Dicky Eklund in “The Fighter.” The comparison is embarrassing. Whether it is because of the direction or the screenplay, Bale’s performance in this film is half of what he did in “Fighter.”
A funny aspect of this film is that throughout the first half of the film it appears to be his terrible beard that is shielding Bale’s remarkable acting skills from the viewer. Then, presto, he shaves off the bear and there is Dicky Eklund. In spite of Bale’s radiant charisma, his character continues to go down the road of the predictable and banal.
Ni ni almost steals the show as prostitute Yu Mo who eventually does more that John Miller to save the girls of the orphanage. Reportedly, this story is based on a true tale of the fallen angels helping the upper class virgins in distress. That part of the story is what made the original novel by Geling Yan a legendary success.
The role of the American always was second to the role of the ladies of the night and that put the headliner Bale in a hopeless position in this film. As much as he was trying to show the pain of Dicky Eklund he could not surpass the amazing grace of the lowest class women in Nanking sacrificing themselves for the privileged, but innocent, girls.
The soldiers on both sides of the fence are shown in the usual manner, with the Chinese fighting to the death and the Japanese raping and murdering everybody they found. Certainly there is a lot of truth in that depiction but this film makes no effort to show the pain and subtlety of the situation.
Some of those Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than continue with the slaughter and some of those Chinese soldiers looted and ran to save themselves. There is no place for such fine lines in this film. As it turns out, those fine lines are the real stuff of war and the real stuff of character.
Those complexities of human nature stretched beyond the breaking point were lost in the exaggerated stereotypes of “The Flowers of War.”
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Directed by: Yimou Zhang
Written by: Heng Liu (screenplay), Geling Yan (novel)
Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni and Xinyi Zhang
Release Date: January 20, 2012
MPAA: Rated R for strong violence including a sexual assault, disturbing images, and brief strong language
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Country: China / Hong Kong
Language: Chinese / English / Japanese / Mandarin / Shanghainese