Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 21, 2012 2:36 pm 
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Cheering melodrama about a time of atrocity

When I saw Lu Chuan's 2009 City of Life and Death last year during its US release I was critical of the way it introduces simplified, emblematic characters into its otherwise realistic depiction of the horrific Japanese siege of Nanking. But City of Life and Death is a paragon of historical accuracy compared to Zhang Yimou's sketchy and fanciful The Flowers of War, a technicolor extravaganza set in Nanking during the siege and starring Christian Bale as John Miller, a boozy mortician turned unlikely hero, along with a bevy of young Chinese women and one gawky boy in round-rimmed glasses who, himself, like a dozen pretty young prostitutes, becomes a willing martyr. The 1937 Japanese siege can be seen as many things, but hardly as colorful, though that's how it emerges here. Zhang's movie is almost like a musical comedy version of events. Call me stodgy, but though we all enjoy a colorful story, I think that when a complicated, horrible historical event like Nanking is reduced to that, it's a little hard not to see the result as a bit of a travesty. I love Zhang's House of Flying Daggers. But such Chinese period extravaganzas, with their beautiful stars in gorgeous almost-historical costumes and their surfeit of eye-popping special effects, are poor preparation for staging 1930's atrocities; hence Zhang's choice of a peripheral, anecdotal, and sentimental story. But this was, even so filtered, not the right kind of material for Zhang.

In my opinion you'd be much better off altogether avoiding The Flowers of War. But if you can't resist trying this new example of Zhang's unquestionable visual flair and skill as an entertainer, you need to also get yourself a copy of City of Life and Death, and then watch Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's 2007 documentary, Nanking, whose first hand testimony is anything but sentimental and whose historical detail studiously avoids simplifications.

The screenplay of The Flowers of War by Heng Liu is based on a novella by Geling Yan called The 13 Women of Nanjing. Several of the Chinese-American Geling Yan's writings have been made into movies before, including Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (1998) and Chen Kaige's opera star biopic Forever Enthralled (2008). In this story, the mortician makes his way through a battle scene to the church where he is to prepare the dead priest for burial, but instead he finds a group of girl students who are trapped and terrified, and an orphan boy called George (Huang Tianyuan) who considers himself in charge and abhors John Miller's irreverent search for drink and money and willingness to sleep in the priest's big bed.

The movie is in love with picturesque and weepy moments; innocent schoolgirls with good singing voices; lovable prostitutes in bright shiny dresses and pretty makeup, and gawky boys. In the foreground, it's in love with Bale's handsome looks and engaging impersonation of the rakish, aw-shucks mortician pressed to become a reluctant hero when it turns out he can pretend to be the priest at the big church and protect the young women.

At a more basic level The Flowers of War is in love with flashy visual effects, images of shattering stained glass or exploding flour sacks, of the grand spaces of the cathedral-like church surrounded by dramatic scraps of ruins somehow perpetually aflame. It's this focus on mechanical eye candy that seems most a violation of the hard truths recounted in Nanking and Chuan Lu's film -- -- the latter, by the way, formatted severely in black and white. Zhang focuses on a story that, whether it occurred in some form or not, says nothing of the actual roles played by foreigners in protecting thousands of Chinese survivors.

While City of Life and Death begins with battle scenes of remarkable verisimilitude, The Flowers of War seems stagey and artificial and relatively short on crowd scenes from the first shot. Lu Chuan sketches in details about the western sanctuary and its leading personalities -- the Safety Zone run by Dr. John Rabe, a German business man and Nazi party member. City of Life and Death also notably contains sympathetic Japanese characters seen up close.

Geling Yan's story leaves out nearly all important aspects of the events, other than the somewhat vaguely conveyed notions that there was a siege, that many were killed, that the Japanese were brutal, and that there was a temporary sanctuary for Chinese hiding from the Japanese invaders.

Into the big chruch come the 13 women, prostitutes from a local brothel seeking refuge. Eventually when a Japanese officer orders the innocent schoolgirls in their severe uniforms to come to "sing" for the troops, which obviously means they will be raped, the prostitutes persuade Miller to disguise them as schoolgirls, using his skills at makeup, so they can go instead and save the girls. Miller's job immediately thereafter, in a hastily constructed final sequence, is to drive out of Nanking with the girls hidden in the back of a truck.

There's a kind of poetic justice in Christian Bale's fronting such a film since he was first noticed as an actor 25 years ago when he played a boy in a Chinese refugee camp in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. A lot of the time Bale seems to be playing in a vacuum, because he was surrounded by a cast and crew that mostly didn't know any English. But he manages to be warm and engaging, offsetting his superhero and American Psycho image. Huang Tianyuan is annoying, and then enormously touching. And many of the women are appealing as well as pretty, notably the sultry Yu Mo (Zhang discovery Ni Ni), the "top girl," who sets out to seduce and tease Miller. There is nothing sexual in this film and, finally, nothing political. It may mean no harm. But that doesn't mean it does any good. It's soothing to Chinese sensibilities, with its depiction of the Japanese as (literally) rapacious killers. But the real ugliness you will find in other films, such as Lu Chuan's, which depicts rapes in harrowingly graphic terms.

Though it got a qualifying US release in NYC and LA December 21, 2011, The Flowers of War went into limited US release (Landmark Theaters, distributor Wrekin Hill Entertainment) January 20, 2012. The film is China's entry for the 2012 Best Foreign Oscar.

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