Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War back from the dead.
The Flowers of War (2011)
Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tong Dawei, Shigeo Kobayashi
IMDb rating: 7.7
Metacritic rating: 46
If the 70s had De Niro, Pacino and Nicholson, who can we regard as this generation’s equivalent? Hardy? Fassbender? Whatever the case, Christian Bale should certainly be named among them. Rarely an actor to invest himself in a project half-heartedly, forgettable turns at the end of the last decade in the likes of Terminator Salvation and 3:10 to Yuma obviously paid some bills, but did little to challenge Bale or expand his wheelhouse. American Psycho, The Machinist, Rescue Dawn, films that tested the actor’s limits and drew out that cruel honesty within him, seemed very far away. Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War happily seems like a project Bale believed in.
You wouldn’t see this kind of money pumped into a film this violent and bleak perhaps anywhere else in the world
Currently on a qualitative comeback with the impressive pairing of American Hustle and Out of the Furnace, Bale’s other last great performance actually went overlooked in 2011. Shame, as Yimou’s wartime epic ditches Blockbuster Bale’s colourless hero archetype and sees him play his first truly unsympathetic character since Harsh Times in 2005 (which, by the way, far and away features Bale’s best performance – the film itself would be a perfect fit for a Movie Resurrection if it wasn’t 6 Metacritic points above the limit).
Returning to China for the first time since breaking out in 1987’s Empire of the Sun, Bale gives his most uninhibitedly affecting performance since that movie as the opportunistic mortician at the heart of Flowers of War, forced to fend for himself then use his immunity as a Westerner in China to protect a church-full of Chinese schoolgirls. And the actor’s presence is symbolic of what makes the movie fascinating – Bale is a major Hollywood star used as a draw for Western viewers, but the entire movie apes Hollywood cinema, being as glossy and epic as China’s most expensive production can be ($94 mil – you can see every dime on the screen). Only you wouldn’t see that kind of money pumped into a film this violent and bleak perhaps anywhere else in the world.
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The Flowers of War’s focal point is the 1937-38 Nanjing massacre, one of the most contentious episodes in the Second Sino-Japanese War – even now, there isn’t a universally agreed figure on the number of Chinese killed by invading Japanese forces in China’s then-capital. Some Japanese public officials have disputed what they consider vastly inflated estimates of losses, while others argue the so-called ‘Rape of Nanking’ didn’t even happen at all. The Flowers of War, then, is an extraordinarily confident and evidently biased interpretation of what transpired in Nanjing during six fateful weeks. It is, despite its Westernised sheen, a movie tainted by Chinese propaganda.
Much of the film is a touch over-the-top, and undeniably, quite probably perversely entertaining, given the subject matter
But if The Flowers of War is propaganda, it continues in the tradition of propaganda movies of considerable artistic merit. Not quite on the level of the virtuosic I Am Cuba or intelligent Czech sci-fi Ikarie XB-1, The Flowers of War is still drawn from the pen of Zhang Yimou and framed by his eye for style. It’s at least a vital companion piece to the more balanced City of Life and Death, which gives a conflicted Japanese soldier centre place during the massacre, and at best a riveting, if occasionally disturbing melodrama with that wounded, subtle central turn by Bale.
Not everyone is quite as restrained as the film’s star – Hero and House of Flying Daggers director Yimou naturally adores intricate battle sequences, and even in the middle of this harrowing war drama he can’t help but indulge himself, venturing at one point into Dirty Dozen territory with a sequence of defiant, violent ballet between Japanese soldiers and a single, heroic Chinese sniper. It is, like much of the film, a touch too over-the-top, and undeniably, quite probably perversely entertaining, given the subject matter.
Did Western critics treat The Flowers of War so harshly because they felt it had no right to feature such slick action cinema alongside the dark drama? Or was it because it was felt historical accuracy was imperative for this film’s success, as opposed to, say, something like Argo? Because The Flowers of War is for the most part well-made cinema – that it also at times takes on a biased ideological stance is just an unfortunate by-product. If, seemingly unlike those precious critics, you can enjoy a movie at the same time as you reject its uneasy doctrine, The Flowers of War is worth a look.
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All images: Revolver Entertainment