Dir. Zhang Yimou, China, 2011, 145 mins, in Chinese and English with subtitles
Review by Colin Dibben
The great director of House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Raise the Red Lantern is back with a sideswiping take on the war epic – the largest production ever undertaken in China. He shouldn’t have bothered: the film manages to be turgid, sentimental, complacent and repugnant. It’s an insult to civilian war dead and rape victims everywhere.
In December 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japanese forces fought their way into the city of Nanjing. In a six week period, between 200,000 and 300,000 civilians and disarmed soldiers were executed by the Japanese. Twenty thousand women, including infants, girls and the elderly were raped, gang-raped, mutilated and killed.
The Flowers of War focuses on two groups of women, holed up in a Catholic church in the centre of Nanjing. Foxy Yu Mo (Ni Ni) heads up a team of prostitutes. Intense Shu (Zhang) leads a gang of schoolgirls. John Miller (Bale) is a chancer and a drunk who ends up at the church and starts to impersonate the resident priest in the hope of protecting the ladies.
There are several problems with this film. Firstly, Bale’s hammy acting gives very little credibility to his obnoxious character. He really isn’t very good at playing American. Secondly, the love story between Miller and Yo Mo crashes on take-off, largely due to the fact that her hesitant English does little for the clunky dialogue, although Bale’s acting doesn’t help either. Thirdly, there’s a heavy-handed and sexualized – and therefore, given the context, slightly disturbing – voyeur/point-of-view motif: Shu is constantly peeping on Miller and Yo Mo and feeding her traumatized thoughts back to the viewer.
But these are just details. It’s the focus of the film that is completely ‘wrong’. I’ve nothing against attempts to salvage hope from stories about horrific events but there’s something about the way the big act of self-sacrifice is developed here that made me want to puke. To focus on an imagined act of self-sacrifice, especially when it has a sexual element, seems deeply perverse here. Frankly, in film narrative terms, self-sacrifice is a bit of a cliché. These days you have to do something pretty unique with it to make it credible. Instead, what we get here is Final Solution thinking: the prostitutes are chosen to be raped. And this is presented as a judgmental, rationalised decision: it makes more sense for this to happen to them, I mean, they do it for a living, right? In scale at least, the Nanjing Massacre was a uniquely horrific event. Yimou and his team had the opportunity to make a unique response to it. Instead, the film turns around this judgmental aspect. It turns a story of mass rape into a drama of sexual innocence versus sexual experience, where the latter is judged and sentenced to rape and death.
On the plus side, the combat sequences at the beginning of the film are good, filmed in that mottled, bleached, high-contrast colour that you associate with World War Two colour footage. There are some nice details in the early part of the film, too: stacks of coloured paper in a shop are shredded when the building is blown apart – the shreds fall like psychedelic snow over the smouldering city; a circular stained glass window in the church shatters and blows inwards.
Essentially, this is a just another sexualized rape drama. The film sets up a ritualized rape of its own as a way of coming to terms with the larger, real-world atrocity of the Nanjing Massacre. A film set during the most infamous mass rape in modern history, telling a story that hinges on the difference between schoolgirls and prostitutes and suggests that the latter are more appropriate rape victims. Did I miss a meeting? Or is that deeply offensive?
- Showbiz: Christian Bale’s controversial new film set to open across UK (walesonline.co.uk)