“The Flowers of War” has broken new ground for China’s movie industry: It’s among the first domestically financed films to star a high-profile Hollywood actor (Christian Bale), and its reported budget of close to $100 million makes it the country’s priciest production to date. But when it comes to storytelling, Zhang Yimou’s 19th feature is decidedly backward-looking: A lavish period weepie set against the atrocities of the Nanking Massacre, “Flowers” abounds with well-worn movie archetypes and slathers on schmaltz.
Based on Geling Yan’s novel “13 Flowers of Nanjing,” the story gathers an improbable collection of people — Bale’s freelance American mortician, a group of convent schoolgirls and the women from a local brothel — in the nominal refuge of a Catholic cathedral as the capital falls to Japan’s Imperial Army. Zhang marshals his creative team to deliver stunning cinematic sequences and period detail, particularly in Yohei Taneda’s production design for the church and the character-defining costumes by William Chang Suk-Ping.
But “Flowers,” China’s official submission for the foreign-language Academy Award, remains an uneasy mix of action and melodrama.
Having helmed “House of Flying Daggers,” not to mention the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies, Zhang is no stranger to spectacle. Its place in a tale of brutality and emotional devastation is another matter — even if, in their very muchness, the lurid beauty of the visuals (photographed by frequent Zhang collaborator Zhao Xiaoding) and the hokey exaggerations of the story are well matched. All that’s missing are characters as fully realized as their surroundings.
“Flowers” unfolds in December 1937, in the early months of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a crucial chapter in Chinese history that Zhang explored in his first film, 1987’s “Red Sorghum.” A younger Mainland director, Chuan Lu, created a memorable depiction of Nanking’s decimation in the recent “City of Life and Death,” a film that uses a broader canvas and a finer brush than Zhang chooses to employ.
The broad strokes of the screenplay by Liu Heng (“Ju Dou”) pit the innocence of the schoolgirls against the worldliness of the prostitutes. The story’s occasional narrator, 13-year-old Shu (Zhang Xinyi) — whose generic point of view adds nothing to the story — watches with alarm the seductive dance between scruffy John Miller (Bale) and elegant Yu Mo (Ni Ni), the brothel’s No. 1 courtesan, herself convent-schooled and conversant in English.
Innocence-vs.-experience is an undeniably strong theme. The girls’ tender adolescence heightens its impact, especially given the historical facts. The Nanking Massacre is also known as the Rape of Nanking, and it’s more than a figurative description: The Japanese invaders committed horrendous sexual assaults against the female population. In “Flowers,” the girls’ safety becomes the paramount concern of the survivors holed up in the cathedral.
But however terrible and real the threat of rape, the clumsy screenplay turns every Japanese soldier into a rampaging maniac, some of them screaming exultantly upon discovering virgins. The exception is commander Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), a soft-spoken man who appreciates music. The genteel colonel isn’t, however, above arranging for the convent girls to be delivered into the hands of his superiors, setting in motion a contrived series of climactic events that are nonetheless affecting because of their elemental power.
The cultured military leader is one of the character perennials that populate the film, chief among them the whore with a heart of gold and the noncommittal loner who becomes a reluctant hero. From the moment Miller mutters “I’m not good with kids,” there’s no question that they’ll capture his heart or that he’ll shake off his boozy haze to protect them.
Mouthing dialogue that thuds more than it sings, Bale never quite shakes off the sense of performance, but at his best he embodies a man stepping awkwardly into costume — Miller drunkenly dons a dead priest’s clothing — and growing, predictably, to fill the role. Most of the younger performers, including the impressive Ni Ni, are first-timers doing what they can in thinly conceived parts. All but stealing the film is newcomer Huang Tianyuan as George, an orphaned teen boy who grew up in the cathedral and proves its most steadfast defender.
Zhang often has focused on characters, especially women, enduring the constraints of tradition. In the courtesans of “Flowers” he has a poignant concept, if not vivid individuals. But it’s George, who fits no preconceived mold, and whom Huang makes real amid the self-consciously artful visions of murder and mayhem, who brings home the story’s central notion of selflessness and sacrifice.