Lionsgate // 2012 // 142 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 19th, 2012
The dangerous streets of Nanking threw them together
During World War II, American was a little busy handling the European theater and managing Japanese aggression. Though we paid a bit of attention to our Russian allies, for the most part our culture didn't have time to focus on all the conflicts happening all over the globe, especially if they weren't directly affecting our allies. It's not surprising, then, that most American history books gloss over the historical animosity between Japan (a tiny island nation) and China (a vast field of resources), especially as it erupted during WWII. The most famous example is the so-called "Rape of Nanking," where Japanese forces overran the Chinese capital, killing and raping with seeming impunity. Though relatively little-known in the West (especially when compared to more "popular" atrocities like the Holocaust, the Bataan death march, and the bombing of Dresden), the situation has received increasing American attention in the past several years. Despite this renewed attention (and despite the star power of Christian Bale), a film about the event -- The Flowers of War -- did not perform well enough in America to earn a wide release. Though The Flowers of War (Blu-ray) provides a great opportunity to revisit a film too-quickly abandoned, it also shows that the film is far from perfect.
When the Japanese forces invaded Nanking there are few places to hide. A group of schoolchildren and courtesans end up in an abandoned church, where John Miller (Christian Bale, Batman Begins) is posing as a priest. This unlikely band will have to survive as the Japanese army destroys the world around them.
It's tough to tell the stories of the marginalized and oppressed. Many people don't care, and even those who do care might not want to hear the horrific stories that inevitably come. Sometimes, it helps to have a person in the film that the majority audience can identify with, someone they understand intuitively and won't have a problem associating themselves with. It worked for Glory. Despite the fact that it's the story of an all-black regiment and the remarkable story is of their heroics, the film tells the story by identifying with Matthew Shaw, their white commander. No doubt he was a hero, too, but the big reason to structure the story around him is that the (mostly white) audience the film was sold to found it easier to identify with him. In that case, it was an excusable historical choice.
Flowers of War, however, completely invents its central white character, John Miller, the mortician-turned-fake-priest. The logic of turning a particularly Chinese tragedy into the story of an American struggling with his demons is utterly beyond me. The fact that the film was made entirely by Chinese writers and directors is similarly shocking. The fall of Nanking is a seminal event in twentieth century Chinese history, so making it about the demons of a lone white man is roughly equivalent to remaking Saving Private Ryan from the point of view of a vacationing Chinese beachgoer. It's immediately off-putting.
More problematic, however, is the fact that Flowers of War doesn't have a new story to tell. I could forgive the presence of the white guy if the story otherwise told me something new or interesting about Nanking. That's not really the case. Flowers of War is a heavy handed tale of social mores. I mean the basic premise is that a group of schoolchildren and courtesans get stuck in a church with an alcoholic pretending to be a priest. That should go next to the entry for "heavy handed" in the dictionary.
Much to my surprise, Chinese audiences didn't have as much of a problem with Christian Bale's presence as I did in the film; Flowers of War was a huge hit in China. Though I found the story less than compelling, it's not hard to see why. Director Yimou Zhang (director Hero and House of Flying Daggers) was given the budget to really sell the rape of Nanking. Though much of the film confines itself to the plight of Miller and the women, there are numerous set pieces that give an epic feel to the Japanese military actions in Nanking, complete with explosions, gunfire, and soldiering action. These scenes are executed with visual style to spare. It's interesting to see a director go from choreographing much less high-tech battles (Hero) and kung-fu style fights (House of Flying Daggers).
Also worth noting are the performances in the film. Obviously Bale is up to his usual high standards, but the rest of the actors are equally effective at matching his angst and fear. Though not quite the actorly drama that many war pictures are, Flowers of War provides opportunities for some surprisingly touching human moments.
Whether the splendor of the action and the solid acting can overcome a too-trite story and misplaced "hero" will be an individual decision, but this Blu-ray is an excellent way to decide. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition widescreen transfer is near-perfect. The big-budget action set pieces have a surprising amount of detail, and the darker interiors of the church showcase solid black levels and little noise. Color saturation is spot-on, and digital artifacts are never a problem. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is even better. The dialogue during those tense moments of conversation is crystal clear, while the track ramps up during action scenes to really sell the violence of the battles.
Five featurettes comprise the main extra for the disc. They cover everything from the film's origins to how they attracted Christian Bale, all the way through how some of the battle scenes were choreographed and shot. The film's trailer is also available.
The Flowers of War is not a bad film. Though its focus on a white character in the midst of the conflict between China and Japan is misplaced, and the overall story of schoolchildren and courtesans can feel trite, the Rape of Nanking is a story that needs to be told. The excellent acting and strong battle scenes will likely win many viewers over, making this disc easy to recommend for a rental.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R