Film review: The Flowers of War

The Flowers of War
Jin líng shí san chai
Beijing New Picture Film Co., EDKO Film, New Picture Company

STARRING Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Huang Tianyuan, Han Xiting, Zhang Doudou, Tong Dawai, Cao Kefan, Atsuro Watabe,Yangyang Chunzi, Sun Jai, Li Yuemin, Bai Xue, Shigeo Kobayashi, Takashi Yamanaka, Paul Schneider
WRITTEN BY Liu Heng, based Geling Yan’s novel “13 Flowers of Nanjng”
PRODUCED BY Zhang Weiping, Chaoying Deng, David Linde, Bill Kong

SHOT BY Zhao Xiaoding
EDITED BY Meng Peicong
MUSIC BY Chan Quigang
DISTRIBUTED BY Row 1 Entertainment, Wrekin Hill Entertainment

Screened 2012-01-12

So here’s our story: during the Rape of Nanking in 1937, a hedonistic American mortician named John Miller (Bale) winds up taking refuge in a Christian church, where he was pillaging for loot. This church contains a group of about a dozen adorable convent girls around the age of 12, which is a big coincidence considering that Miller became a mortician because his 12-year-old daughter’s dying wish was to “make her look pretty.” Miller ends up acting as a surrogate caretaker to the girls as they remain in the church, one of the only safe places of hiding in Nanking, and he does so while donning the vestments of the chapel’s former occupants. Another incredible coincidence occurs when about a dozen wandering prostitues barge in to hide, and have almost no presence in the film until the conclusion, when Miller applies his curiously applicable skills to disguise the prostitutes to pass off as the convent girls – and this is because the prostitues will be going off to their respective deaths in place of the children. So really, Miller is just doing what he does best. A further coincidence involves a Chinese quisling who works under enemy General Hasegawa (who coincidentally loves the sound of childrens’ choirs) whose daughter is among the convent girls, and who just happens to be the only person who can deliver to Miller all the tools necessary to assist the girls in escaping Nanking (writ of transit and the tools necessary to repair a broken down truck which happens to be on the church property). The quisling only wants his daughter’s safe passage, and in his final moments he does just happen to glean enough information to put his mind at peace (before it is forcibly ejected through the back of his skull). A further coincidence involves the Alpha Hooker having formerly been a convent girl herself (where she learned enough English to be able to converse with Miller) until the age of 12, and having formerly been in love with an American. Besides the fact that many characters die brutal deaths, everybody really ends up getting what he’s looking for. The crowning coincidence is the casting of Christian Bale whose acting career was inaugurated on the soil of China as a 12-year-old boy in Spielberg’s fine Empire of the Sun. It was Spielberg who suggested Bale’s casting in The Flowers of War. And actually, believe it or not, I am leaving out many other more minor coincidences that occur between the characters, all of which create a narrative which neatly fits together and leaves no loose ends of any kind.

According to IMDB this film was shot in primarily 18 hour days, of which there were 164. And here I thought the film was already beyond belief. The production does strive for an epic scope and there are a few extensive war scenes and sets and special effects… but 164 days is astonishing, especially considering how much of the film is spent in one primary location. Given the myriad saccharine story elements, the breadth of the production, and the seemingly totally unnecessary presence of a major American film star, The Flowers of War feels like “an epic for the general reader.” Allegedly this story was based off of true events and I can only speculate as to the dramatic licenses taken by Geling Yan in his book, “The 13 Flowers of Nanjing.” I presume they are legion. Let us never forget the inhumanity of the Rape of Nanking, but to circuitously wring the tears out of your audience like this – as if the massacre wasn’t tragic enough – is to all but pass over the event itself as an historical footnote.

written by David Ashley