The horror of war is painted with devastating clarity in Flowers of War, a historical fiction drama by director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). Set during the 1937 Japanese massacre in Nanjing, under imminent occupation, the city is reduced to dusty rubble and the last remaining citizens are fleeing for their lives amid piles of civilian bodies lining the streets.
Caught up in this madness, is American mortician, John Miller (Christian Bale), a drunk, crass and opportunistic Westerner stereotype in Nanjing to bury the Father at the local convent. As the violence reaches the relative safety of the convent, he soon finds himself responsible for its young occupants, along with a group of local brothel-workers looking for sanctuary. These disparate groups – innocent and devout convent children, sex workers given to selfishness and vanity, and a no-hoper Westerner – form an unlikely alliance under horrific circumstances.
Depicted with both visceral brutality, and sickening banality as a weapon of war, the threat of rape looms large over the film. As the Japanese close in on this last safe haven, a plot is hatched to save the girls from this inevitable fate and everyone must put personal conflicts aside and band together in a dramatic twist of loyalty and self-sacrifice.
While Yimou is an acclaimed Chinese director, producer, screen writer and actor, Flowers is painted heavily with the Hollywood brush, employing deafening cliché and wince-worthy platitudes to make its point. Played without much depth by Bale, Miller’s abrupt and valiant about-face – from dressing as a priest for a drunken lark, to sobering up enough to impersonate one – smacks of ‘the accidental hero’ formula, and ham-fisted dialogue that wades into sluggish exposition (“I’m not a priest! I’m not a priest! I’m not!”), is a signature move for a filmmaker that doesn’t completely trust his audience. A series of spoon-fed sentimental moments, flat characters and mostly implausible plot lines are others.
But clumsy dialogue and devices aside, viewers that appreciate long, detailed explosion-filled battle scenes, military tactics, and final acts of heroism will be rewarded with emotive, if contrived, outcomes, and the brothel workers’ 1930s finery is contrasted to great effect against a city on its knees.
Audiences will love the idea that their cinema experience has also been a history lesson, and with the added star-power of Bale, Flowers will do well in Western box offices. By invoking epic themes and highly emotional content, it's impossible not to be effected, but in lieu of genuine exploration, it can only muster the tired generic Hollywood versions of heroism, romance and war.