While the historically overlooked massacre and genocide of China's city of Nanking is experiencing a resurgence in cultural awareness (and therefore cinema) as an under-remembered tragedy worth memorializing (see the 2007 documentary "Nanking"), the brutal events – Japan killing 200,000 people in their 1937 overthrowing of the region – is still mostly unknown outside of the East.
So leave it to Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou ("House of Flying Daggers"), to give it a shallow, oversized, Michael Bay-like treatment, replete with melodrama, operatic violence and balletic, slow-motion war sequence grandeur that desperately wants to make it clear that This Is Important And Worth Paying Attention To. The result however, is a movie that is a curious mix between the over-the-top emotion of "Pearl Harbor" and the washed-out brutality-of-war aesthetics of "Saving Private Ryan," all topped off by the overly-maudlin and overcooked direction of Yimou. Add to that an exorbitant almost two-and-a-half hour running time and the result is a tedious and schmaltzy exercise in tragedy war porn with almost zero emotional investment to make you care.
In the film, Christian Bale plays an American mortician hired to dispose of a local priest's body in war-torn Nanking. As a city under massive siege, it's a bit odd that anyone in their right mind would stick around to fulfill what now is a meaningless contract, as bodies are a dime a dozen and litter the bloodied, bombed-out streets.
But motivations are made clear early, as Bale's John Miller character is essentially a selfish mercenary who follows the money trail. He assists a pair of school girls who just witnessed the gruesome death of their friends to return to the church from whence they came. But quickly, it’s apparent his altruism is by design so he can find this priest's body, complete the job and get paid.
When he realizes the priest’s remains are obliterated and all that's left at the church are a gaggle of Chinese school girls and one parish boy, his main objective remains getting paid in full. "I don't do well with children," he says, seemingly oblivious to their plight of being abandoned with ruthless, rape-happy Japanese soldiers crawling about. The arrival of some Chinese geisha-girl whores-with-hearts-of-gold (natch) looking for sanctuary in the no-war-zone church boosts the sex and romance factor while revealing more of Bale’s self-interest (he wants to get laid too).
Asked point blank by the parish boy to help the children escape, Bale essentially asks, incredulously, "For free?" And yet from minute one his imminent character change from asshole to do-gooder feels all too predictable; from a narrative perspective, his rebirth is all but expected. But the film's first fatal flaw is creating a transformation that is anything but seamless or believable.
When the church is mercilessly attacked, he ducks for cover, eventually donning priest robes in a maneuver we’re supposed to glean is a last-ditch attempt to put the wrath of god into the soldiers to save his skin. But the transition is jarring. It’s as if something magical happens when Bale changes clothes, becoming a completely different character of righteous virtue. Are we to believe John Miller, the American, the self-serving mortician with an affinity for booze and cigarettes is also an excellent actor? Is he so desperate to stay alive that performance skills turn him into a completely different person than who we saw on screen two minutes before? Or has a divine act of God occurred, changing this man in a time of crisis?
Neither Yimou or Bale ever make this very clear, and in fact, each time Bale dons the sacrosanct attire, it’s strangely as if he’s playing an entirely different character than the selfish, dirty American we’ve witnessed thus far. Sure, he observes the senseless slaughter of children and his conscience grows, but his conspicuous metamorphosis had already taken place by this point. While Bale’s character does have various crises of faith throughout – thankfully acknowledging he isn’t a priest just as we’re dreading some insane moment of self-delusion – the tonal imbalance throughout regarding the true nature of his character is a major sticking point in suspension of disbelief.
But “The Flowers Of War” doesn’t seem too interested in resonantly telling the story of a man who grew a soul and risked his life to save children with the help of some local trollops who turned out to be pretty decent people. Instead, the picture’s focus is the horrors of war, ironic since most of the violence is gorgeously shot with beautiful, carefully crafted slo-mo. The premium that the picture places on visual dazzle through stray bullets, explosions and overall brutal warfare (which include a few stabbings and rapes too) is as you might expect, fairly high. So ironically, the human spirit suffers the most in this superficial film about the morality of a few, amidst the amorality of the many. By the time the inevitable romance starts to flutter, filled with the typical slow, super-imposition montage of lovemaking, you’re rolling your eyes as the picture has lost you ages ago.
While Yimou – the director of visually ravishing works like "Hero,” "House Of Flying Daggers," and “Curse of the Golden Flower” – has a stunning visual eye, and has managed to balance emotion and heart with sumptuous and technically dazzling images in these aforementioned films, “Flowers Of War” is almost always hollow, and little care or nuance is placed on the characters or the soul of the film.
By the time Christian Bale is high-tailing it out of Nanking in a truckload of booze and cute, rescued little Chinese girls, we simply don’t care and can’t wait for Bruce Wayne to finally get home. Either that or you’re praying for a Joker-driven mack truck to sideswipe this phony, mawkishly sentimental and self-important picture straight from memory. [D+]