Flowers of War is a brutal glimpse into the Nanking Massacre and the horrors suffered by the women of the city. Marred by clunky dialogue and sentimentality, it attempts to find a line between brutal realism and over-stylised cinematography but these jarring shifts only destroy immersion in this ambitious failure.
In 1937 Japan invaded China for the second time. Advancing rapidly upon the former capital of Nanking, soldiers were given tacit consent by officers to rape and murder as much as they wanted. The city fell quickly and for a six-week period the Japanese looted and pillaged. It is reported that 200 000 – 300 000 people were killed over this time and up to 1000 women were raped every night. For all Chinese people it was a time where their lives were nothing but playthings for the invading army.
In this rubble-strewn city comes selfish mortician John Miller (Bale), mostly seeking a warm bed and the bottom of a bottle. Entering Winchester Cathedral in Nanking to prepare the body of a recently deceased priest, Miller becomes entangled with two groups of woman, a class of young convent girls and a group of prostitutes from the famous Qin Huai River red light district. While pretending to be a priest Miller finds the clothes become the man and is unable to abandon these women. He desperately searches for a way to get them out of the city as he learns about the nature of sacrifice.
Seeing the cathedral as a refuge the prostitutes force their way in and take up residence in the cellar. The contrast between these women at different stages of their life forms a central theme of the movie. Although the Qin Huai River women have sold their bodies there is no comparison to the animal need of the Japanese soldiers and they eventually attempt to protect the young girls from a terrible fate.
Flowers of War does not handle this subject matter delicately and uses shock visuals more than once to elicit a reaction from the audience. Shot with directors Yimou Zhang’s characteristic use of colour, glowingly-lit scenes do not mesh well with some of the realism of battle and brutalisation of people.
The Cathedral and streets of Nanking lack a naturalness that makes them feel very small and enclosed. The whole set suffers from this doll-house feeling and it lacks any feeling of realism.
Bale is given, the most space to show his abilities but is unable to produce anything of note. Tianyuan Huang as the young George Shen is the most impressive. Ni Ni as the leader of the group of prostitutes does an adequate job with what she is given. Most of the prostitutes and convent girls don’t provide much more than background although there are enough poised, tear-streaming shots to sink all of Nanking. The Japanese soldiers are presented as nothing more than beasts or cultured obedient robots.
It is a pity that Zhang’s ambitious story of sacrifice and war is failed by a plodding predictable plot and over-baked cinematography. An exclusively choral soundtrack also becomes extremely tiresome by the end of the movie. The tragedy of Nanking deserves to be told far better than this.