The Flowers of War – Review

10 Feb

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Zhang Yimou’s newest movie, The Great Wall. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’m going to hold all judgement until I actually do, but I wanted to point out that Yimou is still responsible for some really fantastic and visually striking films that shouldn’t be ignored. The two that I’m most familiar with are Hero and House of Flying Daggers. In 2011, Yimou went in a sort of different direction with the historical war/drama film, The Flowers of War, a chronicling of the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This film has a lot of power behind the story, and the performances are to be praised along with the visual flair behind it. There is something holding the movie back from being a classic, however, and some of the detractions of his newest film can also be noticed here.

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in 1937, Nanking is completely overrun by Japanese troops, which puts every person in the city in extreme danger of torture and murder. Amongst these people are John Miller (Christian Bale), and American mortician hired by a Catholic church for his grim services, and a group of schoolgirls looking for cover wherever they can. One of the schoolgirls, Shu (Zhang Xinyi), runs into John on his way to the church, and he escorts her to safety there. While they are in hiding, a group of prostitutes, led by the beautiful and strikingly wise Yu Mo (Ni Ni), also find refuge in the church. These different people all have major differences in beliefs and practices, but they are soon forced to overcome these biases to protect each other when a representative for the Japanese, Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), makes his and his troops presence known and essentially barricades them inside the church until he can figure out what to do with them all. Thus begins a daring escape plan formulated by the reluctant John and Yu Mo to get as many people to safety as possible.

Right off the bat, The Flowers of War has a subject that is very difficult to tackle. This is a very dark time in human history, so it must really be handled with care. Luckily, under the direction of Zhang Yimou, I think that it’s handled very respectfully and without any kind of exploitation. That doesn’t mean that there is no controversy surrounding this movie. One interesting thing to point out is that this movie is banned in Japan for reasons that are pretty obvious. This film definitely shows the horrors that were inflicted by the Japanese unflinchingly realistic detail. There’s also been some critics who have pointed out that this is another example of a “white savior” story arc. I’m not one to usually point this out, but I do see where these critics are coming from. The entire cast is made up of Chinese and Japanese actors with Christian Bale being the only western actor for most of the movie. While it’s fine that he’s in the movie, a lot of the film revolves around him protecting the people inside the church. That being said, unlike some other movies that suffer from this cliché, the supporting characters do handle themselves very well and show smarts and grit in times of suspense and intensity.

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When I think of the movies by Yimou that I really like, the first things that come to my head are the colors that highlight every scene of his movies. The Flowers of War is toned down a little bit, but don’t be fooled. This is a beautiful movie to look at and, even when something isn’t jumping out at you in a shot, just look at the framing and lighting. Zhao Xiaoding, who has worked as Yimou’s cinematographer on House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, returns for this movie and works perfectly with Yimou to frame and light this movie just right. There’s not enough that can be said about the visuals. There’s also great usage of slow motion photography and one particular tracking shot that sent shivers down my spine. Say what you will about anything in this movie, you have to give a lot of credit to the technical proficiency and artistry behind the camera.

While also being great visually, Yimou has shown his strengths at telling a story, and it works here for the most part. He gets the best out of his actors, for sure. Christian Bale and Ni Ni are fantastic, and the child actors are also put to great use and feel very natural. There’s a lot of power in the telling of this story, but it doesn’t really keep the power going for some parts. The film starts off very strong and just keeps building in tension and drama, but it starts to fall apart during the overlong third act. This is when the planning of their escape starts, which is all fine, but there’s a romance that forms and a lot of other unnecessary scenes of dialogue that could have been cut out or trimmed down. It just felt awkward having this slow down happen so late in the movie after so much has just happened. This is the film’s biggest detractor. It has a nice flow for most of the movie, but the third act feels so unnatural and weird at times that I started to check how much time left a little bit too often.

The Flowers of War is a really good retelling of a very dark time in human history. Zhang Yimou continues to show his strengths as a director and storyteller, even though the narrative starts to slump heavily during the overlong third act. The characters in this movie are very well rounded and it’s a beautiful film to look at. I can see people getting upset over the certain elements of the movie, but I think they should try to get past it, if not just a little bit, to see the greater story being told. This isn’t a classic, but it’s a valiant effort from a very talented film maker.

Final Grade: B+

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