When I heard that Academy Award winning actor Christian Bale (The Fighter and Nolan’s recent Batman films) was teaming up with multi-Academy-Award-nominee director Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers), I put it on my list of must-see films. Admittedly, Bale has a tendency to gnaw on the scenery a bit, but with a good director, he can be amazing, and Zhang has always shown incredible control over his actors. When the Chinese government chose the film to be China’s submission to the Foreign Language Academy Award (the 7th time a Zhang Yimou film has been submitted), I guessed the film would be a frontrunner for the award. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that The Flowers of War is actually one of the worst films of 2011 and feels like propaganda masquerading as art.
Like City of Life and Death, released earlier this year in the US, The Flowers of War revolves around the terrible war atrocity known as the Rape of Nanjing, telling the story of one outsider whose very presence saves a number of possible victims. But while City tells the true story of Nazi doctor John Rabe and the people he attempted to help, Flowers is historical fiction loosely based on that story, with Bale playing an alcoholic mortician named John Miller pretending to be a priest in order to save a church filled with schoolgirls and prostitutes. And where City controversially portrays a Japanese soldier as a complex human being, Flowers paints the Japanese as one-note bloodthirsty savages. Of course, it becomes clear why these choices were made: The Flowers of War is borderline government-sponsored propaganda, and it’s hard to make the victims of an atrocity empathetic when the villain is sympathetic and the hero of the film is a Nazi.
To make matters worse, other than some noteworthy cinematography utilizing his trademark use of color, none of the director’s previous brilliance is on display here. The story is a laughable simplification of the real event, with the schoolgirl/prostitute dichotomy absurd (and occasionally entertaining in a bad way), and the plot points are needlessly telegraphed far in advance even though they’re predictable, tired clichés we’ve seen in countless films before. The dialogue is worse. With supposedly 40% of the dialogue in English (although it feels like more), Zhang Yimou appears unable to direct actors in a language other than his own. While Bale’s over-the-top performance as the alcoholic-turned-fake priest deserves plenty of barbs, English lines delivered by the Chinese actresses actually steal his thunder. Girls who have supposedly studied English for a short time somehow form grammatically perfect sentences but don’t know where to properly stress or pause. At first, it’s just kind of awkward, but when an overly earnest schoolgirl’s weird English combines with Bale’s ridiculous theatrics, scenes that are meant to be tear jerking actually induce either cringes or involuntary snorts of laughter.
It’s difficult to attack a film about such a heinous moment in human history, and I’m sure that many involved had good intentions. The film contains some truly beautiful imagery, especially the way cinematographer (and frequent collaborator) Zhao Xiaoding uses a stained-glass window throughout the film. Also, the use of brutal violence, especially rape, is effective in portraying the horrific events that unfolded in Nanjing. Had the script and actors been handled differently, The Flowers of War could have been the tragically beautiful companion to Schindler’s List that the director desired to make. Instead of that fitting tribute, however, Flowers is closer to lurid propaganda; what could have been a beautiful celebration of the human spirit instead comes off as pretty-but-conventional melodrama.