Harvey Critic - 20/12

Review: The Flowers Of War

In his controversial new book "The Better Angels of our Nature," Harvard professor Steven Pinker postulates that we as a society have become increasingly less violent, so much so that the present era is the most peaceful in recorded history. If this is difficult to believe given the attention that the media have placed on acts of terrorism and on localized wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, simply look back to 1937 where you will find a six weeks' event among the most horrific in the annals of war. The Japanese attack on the city of Nanking, then the capital of the Republic of China, led to the gratuitous rapes and dismemberments of civilians, many as young as 12 or 23. Zhang Yimou's epic treatment of the event, with romance and heroism in the forefront, does give the audience a graphic picture of the sheer brutality engaged in by the Japanese occupation forces during those weeks, though the director's principal concern is individual acts of heroism by people who would ordinarily be self-absorbed, greedy, and just plain immature and silly. The transformation of one particular individual, John Miller, is the film's principal theme, one which is designed to leave the audience with the feeling that maybe our human race is not so bad after all, that the most selfish among us is capable of change in a brief period of time given the right external forces to motivate him.

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THE FLOWERS OF WAR (Jin ling shi san chai)
Wrekin Hill Entertainment

Reviewed for Arizona Reporter by Harvey Karten
Grade: B+

Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Liu Heng, Gelin Yan, from Geling Yan's novel
Cast: Christian Bale, Paul Schneider, Shigeo Kobayashi, Junichi Kajioka
Screened at: Broadway, NYC, 12/15/11
Opens: December 23, 2011

As with other films by Yimou, principally "Raise the Red Lantern" (a powerful lord with three wives puts a red lantern outside the home of the spouse he will honor that night, leading to vigorous competition among the women), cinematography is so gorgeous that you can't be blamed for thinking that plot and performance take second and third place. In "The Flowers of War," photographer Zhao Xioding, shooting on location in Nanking, puts to shame all cheapskate producers who rely on digital photography at the expense of film, with all the lushness that only celluloid can evoke. The slow motion takes of panes of glass breaking, or bullets piercing the stained glass windows of a cathedral, the composite shots of exquisitely costumes courtesans are easily enough to make your attendance at this film more than worthwhile. Whether the story, given its saccharine patina, its graphic look at the expression "the prostitute with the heart of gold," can begin to match the cinematic looks, is quite another story.

China's most expansive move to date involves a cast of Japanese, Chinese and an American and crews drawn far afield in South Korea and Australia among other locations, "The Flowers of War" focuses on John Miller (Christian Bale), a mortician with an affinity for the bottle and an grasping desire for cash, out of his element in war-torn Nanking, the only Westerner that we can see for miles--journalists having fled the city along with tens of thousands of residents as Japanese solidify their occupation. Encountering both a bevy of schoolgirls age 13 in a cathedral under the protection of young George (Huang Tianyuan), who has taken on that role after the death of the priest, and a band of vivacious courtesans seemingly led by Yu Mo (Ni Ni), Miller finds the stage set for a renunciation of his sinful self and emergence of a true hero.

Ultimately standing up to the demands of a superficially civilized Colonel Hasegawa--who has the chutzpah to insist that the thirteen schoolgirls show up the next day at a party celebrating the Japanese victory in Nanking--John Miller will discover something within his soul that will prevent these virgins from becoming at best "comfort" girls for the barbarous Japanese and at worst victims of their most murderous impulse

"The Flowers of War" features an unusually intense battle scene fought by Major Li (Tong Dawei), yet another of the film's heroes, as apparently the last remaining Chinese soldier resisting the onslaught of the enemy. The film, which alternates between desaturated color and exquisite splotches of blood red and a range of bold, intense pigmentation, is a joy to look at while at the same time is marred by a repetition of closeups of hookers and students whose features range from abject fear to childish hilarity.

Rated R. 141 minutes © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online.

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