Fri, Mar 02, 2012 - Page 13 News List

Movie review: The Flowers of War

Even with Christian Bale leading the cast, Zhang Yimou’s Nanjing Massacre epic misses the mark by veering off into gross sentimentality

By Mike Hale  /  NY Times News Service, New York

There will be tragedy, of course, though when it comes it takes a weirdly oblique form. One group eventually performs what appears to be an ultimate sacrifice, full of sexual and social overtones, but this happens off-camera, if it happens at all. The coyness can be explained, perhaps, in terms of the film’s structure — the story is narrated by one of the students, and what we see may correspond to her selective, romanticized memories — but it cannot really be excused.

On-screen, meanwhile, the camera ventures into the outside world in occasional scenes that seem timed to goose the action and remind us that we’re watching a war movie. In one of Zhang’s few outright concessions to the notion of Chinese supremacism, a lone officer (Tong Dawei, 佟大為) draws a contingent of Japanese soldiers away from the church in an act of hyperbolic heroism. Later, in a surrender to gross sentimentality, two prostitutes leave the church on the sort of insane mercy mission that happens only in movies, with particularly disturbing consequences. Aside from that sequence Zhang is restrained in his depictions of Japanese brutality, which mostly take the form of threats and intimidation.

Bale, turning in a respectable if oddly chipper performance under the circumstances, has the unfortunate task of playing a character who doesn’t really add up. Miller’s conversion from opportunist to savior may be another stock element of this sort of movie, but the scene meant to showcase his transformation is rushed and ineffective. Having made an American the central figure in his film, Zhang reduces him to wrangling flocks of nubile women, like Cary Grant in a much more violent Father Goose.

The Flowers of War suffers greatly in comparison to several far superior, less hyped movies about the Nanjing Massacre, including the harrowing drama City of Life and Death (南京!南京!), directed by Lu Chuan (陸川), and the documentary Nanking, by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. Those filmmakers came armed with points of view. Zhang, retreating into the mists of old movies, has declined to take the field.

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