Friday, December 23, 2011


The Flowers of War (金陵十三钗)

The Flowers of War Being the creator of 2008 Beijing Olympics's magnificent opening and closing ceremonies, and the director of masterpieces such as "Red Sorghum" (红高粱, 1987) and "Raise the Red Lantern" (大红灯笼高高挂, 1991), prolific Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou has all eyes on him whenever he makes a new film. His latest epic "The Flowers of War" (金陵十三钗 | China 2011 | in Chinese/English/Japanese | 145 min.) is no exception.

With a budget of more than $94 million, this highly anticipated war drama is the most expensive film ever made in China. Once again, for the seventh time, Zhang's film is selected as China's submission to compete for Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. With a terrific performance from an impressive ensemble cast led by Academy Award winner Christian Bale, this emotionally charged and gorgeous looking film brings high hope for finally bringing an Oscar back to China. Already nominated for the 69th Golden Globe Awards, this film is surely on the track to be nominated for the 84th Academy Awards. If that happens, it will be Zhang Yimou's third nomination. Three should be a charm.

Based on an upcoming novel by Yan Geling, the film intimately tells a deeply moving story about survival and sacrifice during a horrific war crime known as the Rape of Nanking on December 13, 1937.

When American encoffiner John Miller (Christian Bale) comes to Nanjing to prepare the burial of a deceased priest at a church, he encounters the brutal massacre by the Japanese invaders. He escapes to a church, where a teenager orphan George (Huang Tianyuan) and fourteen young convent girls live. The next day, fourteen beautiful young women from Nanjing's famous brothel arrive and occupy the church's cellar to hide from the Japanese.

John is delighted to be surrounded by these flirtatious women in glamorous dresses even during the most devastating time, and he is particularly fond of Yu Mo (Ni Ni) who speaks almost perfect English. However, when Japanese soldiers come in the church and begin to attack those young students, John's conscience is waken. Pretending to be the priest at the church when confronting the Japanese, with the help from those brave prostitutes, the flowers of war, he carries out a heroic and miraculous mission—to rescue these young convent girls.

The Flowers of War

Although some of the characters in this film echo those in Lu Chuan's operatic "City of Life and Death" (南京! 南京! | China 2009), although some of the bloody battle scenes resemble those in Steven Spielberg's unforgettable "Saving Private Ryan" (USA 1998), Zhang Yimou tells his gripping story in a survival girl's point of view. He displays enormous affection toward his female characters, as he always does in his films. And, he is a master of creating exquisite visuals in grand scale with impeccable details.

Rape of Nanking is one of the most horrendous crimes when Japanese invaders killed about 300,000 people and raped 20,000-80,000 Chinese. When telling a story about this gruesome crime, many feel a little unsettling when the protagonist is an unsung hero from America instead of the courageous Lt. Li (Tong Dawei). However, Christian Bale gives an extraordinary and emotional performance that engages us with his character instead of his race. When he talks with tears in his eyes, so do I watching it.

Unfortunately, some parts of the script are unconvincing. For example, it is perplexing how bullets can pierce through church windows and hit targets every single time. John's transition from a playboy to a hero also lacks reasoning. The intimate moment between John and Yu Mo seems utterly out of the place. Yet, these flaws are not significant enough to damp the film.

Winning an Oscar or not, Zhang Yimou tells an incredible story that depicts Japanese's appalling crime in China's darkest period, while the humanity and compassion from crime's victims are on full display.

History is to be remembered.

"The Flowers of War," a Wrekin Hill Entertainment release, opens on Friday, December 23, 2011 at Bay Area theaters.

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