"A film not to be missed, although you must prepare for an uncomfortable and somewhat distressing experience..."
Following on from the worldwide success of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman himself, Christian Bale, is back in a black cape in Yimou Zhang's harrowing drama The Flowers of War. Except this time he's playing a priest.
Based on disturbingly real events, Bale plays John Miller - an American mortician turned anti-hero who gets caught up in Japan's rape of Nanking in 1937, seeking refuge amidst a group of young Chinese women who are desperate to survive these horrendous attacks. Although initially wanting to collect his money and leave, John realises he must stay and defend the women, after he witnesses some of the horrific incidents that the poor young girls are subject to at the hands of the Japanese soldiers.
Effectively trapped within the Catholic Church, John has a group of convent girl students to care for, as he poses as a priest in an attempt to steer the girls to safety. However the group are soon joined by a local collective of young women from the red light district, whom also seek refuge at the church. Alongside the youngster George (Tianyuan Huang) John finds himself surrounded by around 30 women, as they all pin their hopes on the American to ensure they remain alive, although it will take an incredible amount of sacrifice on the women's part to do so.
As always, Bale is brilliant within the film, although that shouldn't take anything away from the wonderful display of performances by the Chinese actresses, from the prostitutes to the students - their performances are heartbreakingly poignant and affecting. However the character of John is vital to this picture as, at least during the early stages, he offers some light relief in an otherwise hard-hitting film. We rely on his sense of humour and carelessness to go some way in relieving us of some of the harsh themes explored and scenes which are difficult to watch. His part is also essential as we experince the events through him, seeing everything unfold through the eyes of a tourist, which as an audience member, is effectively all we are ourselves.
It is somewhat rare to witness an American actor appearing in a Chinese production, and it becomes clear his inclusion isn't solely to match the narrative but to appeal to a worldwide audience and cater to a broader demographic. This is portrayed in the Americanisation of parts of this feature, such as the somewhat superfluous romantic sub-plot between John and the prostitute Yo Mo (Ni Ni). Also there is something almost Tarantino-esque about the depiction of war, as although this film doesn't shy away from gore, when it does become quite sanguinary - it's presented in a stylistic way, with clever camera shots and symbolic imagery.
Yet The Flowers of War is by no means a case of style over substance as the film is terribly moving and at points, very difficult to watch. There are however very touching moments made up of self-sacrifice as the picture builds up to a brilliant conclusion. However the film does become quite tedious and overdrawn during the middle stages, and at over two hours long - there is certainly much that could be cut out. Yet the final act makes amends for whatever came before it, as a truly compelling and climatic conclusion, not to mention upsetting.
Depicting a series of real events to great success, The Flowers of War is a film not to be missed, although you must prepare for an uncomfortable and somewhat distressing experience. Combine this with The Dark Knight Rises and you have just over five hours of Christian Bale saving people's lives to indulge in at your local cinema. That's not a criticism by the way, but merely an acknowledgement.