If we were researching a setting for a costumed historical romance, the rape of Nanking would probably not be our first choice. Horrendous in the extreme, the terror visited by invading Japanese troops upon the population of the then-Chinese capital in 1937 has been the subject of numerous books and films — including Chuan Lu’s excellent 2009 City of Life and Death — and is still a political talking point. Zhang Yimou, China’s best known filmmaker, evidently couldn’t resist making his own Nanking movie, but despite a decent cast and high production values, the overall concept of the production is faulty to the point of being repugnant.
The germ of the story of The Flowers of War is what happens when a group of prostitutes from a local brothel takes refuge from the marauding Japanese inside a Christian church in Nanking’s international zone. It so happens that Winchester Cathedral is also occupied by young teenage girls from the convent school, as well as a lone Western man named John Miller (played by Christian Bale), a mortician called to perform his services. By previous agreement, the occupying Japanese soldiers are forbidden to cross into the international settlement, but it’s uncertain how long that decree will last — and the blood-maddened soldiers are in the habit of murdering every man and child and raping every woman they find.
So we get some ready-made irony. The convent girls look down on the whores for social reasons, but to the rapacious Imperial Army men they’re all just Chinese, and thus fair game for brutalization. Miller, a drunk and randy American misfit somehow stranded in China and now posing as a Catholic priest for the Japanese, lusts after the loveliest of the Qin Hai River brothel girls, Yu Mo (Chinese starlet Ni Ni), and she flirts with him, but how can even the soiled niceties of a bordello apply in Nanking’s atmosphere of terror? Bale’s loud, hammy posturing doesn’t help matters, nor does his uncredited English dialogue. Given what we know about the atrocities of Nanking, the idea that any man could playfully conduct a game of sexual conquest amid that chaos seems not only unlikely but also queasy-making. For the record, Ni Ni is okay as the flirty but tragic Yu Mo, and young actor Huang Tianyuan offers at least the hope of redemption as George, the cathedral’s resident orphan.
Zhang, who engineered the magnificent Beijing Olympics spectacles in 2008 as well as directed such groundbreaking films as Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and The Story of Qiu Ju, clearly got off on the wrong foot with this ill-advised project. If it is indeed the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, that money was sadly wasted. From Bale’s cartoonish performance to the laughably bad “heavenly” choral music, The Flowers of War wilts early and lies there, dead.