In recent years there has been an upsurge in films based on the events of the Nanking Massacre (sometimes known as The Rape of Nanking), the most famous, and perhaps greatest of these, was Chaun Lu’s harrowing masterpiece The City of Life and Death, which came out in 2009. The explanation for the rise of such films is to highlight such an event which sadly, because of Pearl Harbour and the Atomic Bombings, is not recognised as much as it should be.
The latest film on the atrocity is The Flowers of War; directed Zhang Yimou it is slightly different from other movies based on the massacre as it focuses its attention on the prostitutes of Nanking’s red light district as well as young schoolgirls rather than the soldiers who fought the war. These two different groups of people flee to an abandoned church to seek shelter from the Japanese soldiers, there John Miller (Christian Bale) joins them, and after a change in personality aims to protect them.
The City of Life and Death shows humans at their very worst, like the film’s title, its themes were oxymoronic. Life and Death are polar opposites, just like the film’s themes of sacrifice, bravery and human brutality. In The City of Life and Death, we saw both sides of the pendulum of what human beings are capable of, The Flowers of War touches upon similar themes, and goes about them in a similar fashion as we witness the ruthlessness of the Japanese Imperial Army and the bravery of those in an impossible position.
The Flowers of War is a harrowing, sometimes moving, portrait of a brutal massacre, but there have been accusations that The Flowers of War is anti-Japanese. These sentiments are so strong that some have labelled The Flowers of War as being Chinese propaganda, these are strong words, very strong indeed and there is an element of truth. Some of the events that took place during the massacre were immoral, unspeakably immoral, but the members of Japanese Imperial Army were still human beings and The Flowers of War does not exactly go the distance to tell us this, however some American films are not exactly innocent of this either.
What is most problematic is the melodramatic aspects of the story, The Flowers of War has the largest budget of any Chinese film, it is like Asian cinema meets Hollywood and it is the Hollywood elements that are the most inappropriate for such a story. Take for example the love affair (which involves Ni Ni’s Yu Mo and Bale’s John Miller) which is problematic as it is horribly misplaced and completely unconvincing. The viewer is never remotely invested in such a love affair as there are more important matters occurring which has far more considerable weight than a love affair to two people. What is also rather unconvincing is why two people would leave the confines of the church for the reasons that they did, it just seemed unnecessary and the escaped kitten is so ridiculously melodramatic it is just silly, it is a rather unimaginative way to add drama to a story that did not need it.
Furthermore the stylistic choices are rather uneven, sometimes proceedings the filmed in a dark, gritty way and other times the slow motion shots gives the violence a balletic beauty. However, these flaws do not remove the film’s power the move, the bravery that these people show, in a seemingly impossible situation, is incredible. The performances are superb as debutant Ni Ni is terrific, but Bale is the star as gives his heart and soul into his performance leaving viewers moved, but somewhat unconvinced by the change in personality of his character, not the fault of Bale, but the way his character was written.
However misplaced the melodrama and peculiar the uneven stylistic choices may be The Flowers of War is still a powerful watch (but, how could it not be?) which never reaches the traumatic heights of The City of Life and Death, the film that all future films on the Nanking Massacre will be judged against.