Christian Bale’s first major screen performance was in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), about a young British boy coming of age in and around Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War, Bale is once again in China, this time as John Miller, a drunken American mortician who helps to save a group of Chinese Catholic schoolgirls during the Nanking massacre. Like Spielberg’s film, Zhang’s is a tale of personal transformation: not a coming-of-age tale, though, but a redemption story. John arrives at the church lured by the promise of money (which he expects to get for preparing the dead priest’s body), but he later pretends to be the cathedral’s priest in order to safeguard the schoolgirls as well as a group of female prostitutes, who are also hiding in the cathedral.
Despite John’s storyline, the film is not merely a tale about a white man saving a group of non-white people. A good portion of the film is told from the point of view of Shu (Zhang Xinyi); likewise, Mo (Ni Ni), the prostitute with a heart of gold, demonstrates great strength of character. There is also the heroic Major Li (Tong Dawei), who is the last Chinese soldier to stay and fight off the invading Japanese as they literally rape, murder, and burn their way through the city.
The Rape of Nanking is one of the most horrific events in human history, so one might question Zhang’s desire to tell a story of hope amid such atrocities. The film is not only a story of personal redemption though: the primary theme (which incorporates John’s redemption) is self-sacrifice, and as such The Flowers of War also becomes a sort of national legend about Chinese sacrifice and resilience during one of the nation’s darkest hours.
On a final note, the Spielberg connections run fairly deep. Each filmmaker’s Christian Bale picture is concerned with the perspective of children. Furthermore, both Spielberg’s and Zhang’s films emphasize visual spectacle (Zhang also made Hero and House of Flying Daggers). Zhang crafts scenes of urban combat, with Chinese infantry scrambling among the city’s ruins as they battle Japanese tank units, which call to mind Saving Private Ryan (1998). Some have criticized Zhang by comparing him to Spielberg; I commend him by doing so.
8 out of 10
The Flowers of War a.k.a. Jin líng shí san chai (China/Hong Kong, 2011)
Directed by Zhang Yimou; written Liu Heng and Yan Geling; starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, and Tong Dawei.