Thursday, April 05, 2012

THE FLOWERS OF WAR - Zhang Yimou At His Forte

THE FLOWERS OF WAR (war adventure in Mandarin)
Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Huang Tianyuan, Han Xiting, Zhang Doudou, Tong Dawai, Cao Kefan, Atsuro Watabe, Yangyang Chunzi, Sun Jai and Li Yuemin
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Liu Heng, based on the novel
13 Flowers of Nanjing by Yan Geling
Time: 141 mins
Rating:  *  *  *  (out of 4)

Christian Bale and Ni Ni in THE FLOWERS OF WAR

PREAMBLE: Made at a 'staggering' US$100 million budget, Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War was China's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards but it did not make the final cut. For this, I suspect that something had gone wrong with its promotion. Indeed, Flowers Of War is a typical Zhang film about strong women caught in a crisis, and here, Zhang introduces yet another promising actress, Ni Ni, to join the ranks of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.

Also, the mainly Oriental cast is augmented by no less than Christian Bale who gives another spirited performance that reminds us of his role in Empire of The Sun 24 years ago.

John Miller (Bale) fooling around with the courtesans

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The tale may be narrated by young Catholic student Shujuan (Zhang Xinyi) but the central characters are an American mortician, John Miller (Bale), and a comely Chinese courtesan named Yu Mo (Ni Ni), both of whom are escaping the rape and plunder of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937. The heavy-drinking and womanising Miller come to bury the cathedral's priest but the major assault on the city seems to be the lesser of his worries.

Forced to shelter at the church, Miller is coaxed by the priest's assistant (Huang Tianyuan as George) into protecting the female students because the Japanese are reluctant to offend the Americans. Things heat up for Miller and the girls when 14 prostitutes from a nearby brother also come to seek shelter at the cathedral.

Huang Tianyuan, Bale and Zhang Xinyi

HITS & MISSES: The film opens with an intensive street battle between the Japanese and Chinese soldiers. Well detailed and superbly filmed by Zhao Xiaoding, we can safely surmise that these battle scenes, thick with smog, ruins and mangled bodies, must have taken up most of the film's budget. In the battle sequences, Tong Dawei shines as a heroic Chinese soldier who protects the students with his life.

When the fighting recedes, the drama at the church heightens when Yu Mo, the only courtesan who speaks English, tries to seduce Miller into helping her and her friends escape. This interaction between Bale and Ni Ni sizzles with screen chemistry! The presence of the courtesans is all the more visually arresting when Zhang juxtaposes their colourful dresses against the drab background of the church and the students' uniform. And of course, the middle segment of the film is dramatised by the catty women who fight among themselves just as the Japanese soldiers break into the church in search of women to rape.

I would have given the movie a higher rating had it not for a few plot turns that I find rather implausible. One of them is the assumption that Miller can fix anything - including the damaged truck in the church compound. Also, I had expected a lot more pathos in the 'Sophie's Choice' scene than Zhang had provided but on the main, I am glad that Zhang is back to his forte after dabbling in kungfu films.

THE LOWDOWN: Another treat for Zhang Yimou fans.


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