Tuesday, 21 February 2012

'The Flowers of War' Berlinale (Out of Competition) review:

In 1937 the Imperial Japanese Army took the Chinese city of Nanking, then the capital. In the six-week period after the city's capture numerous atrocities were committed by Japanese soldiers against civilians and Chinese prisoners of war, the most notorious involving the rape and subsequent mutilation of women and children. Known today as "the rape of Nanking", it's a black chapter of human history and just reading historical accounts of the massacre is guaranteed to turn your stomach. It is in this historical setting that 'Hero' director Zhang Yimou's 'The Flowers of War' is set, with Christian Bale starring as an American caught in the middle.

Apparently loosely based on a true story (and I think "loosely" is the key word), 'The Flowers of War' sees Bale play a selfish mortician who is present during the massacre, making his way to a church where he is due to bury a European priest killed by a stray shell. The church is one of the last remaining safe areas in a city plunged into something resembling hell on Earth, so when Bale's John Miller turns up he decides to take refuge there himself, all the while looking for money, liquor and a means of escape. Also taking shelter in the church are a group of convent girls who immediately look to Miller for protection, begging him to help them, as well as a group of high-maintenance prostitutes (whose spirits are apparently untroubled by events in the city), who climb the walls and set up shop in the basement.

The prostitutes and the convent girls don't see eye to eye, whilst Miller is torn between his lust for the beautiful courtesan Yu Mo (Ni Ni) - who consistently rejects his advances - and his sympathy for these poor, frightened young women. The moment of epiphany for Miller comes as Japanese soldiers violate international law by entering the church, subsequently attempting to rape the young girls, whilst the prostitutes lock themselves in the concealed cellar below. Posing as the fallen priest, Miller wards off the attackers in the name of the lord. He is aided by a guerrilla Chinese soldier who launches a solitary attack on dozens of Japanese troops, persuading them to leave the church grounds.

This extreme and breathtakingly stupid action sequence is full of trailer-friendly explosions and gunfire is a rare flash-point, with this less focused on action set-pieces than the director's previous efforts. Most of the film is confined to the church where the girls bicker and an overacting Bale alternates wildly between a drunken Han Solo and the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The crux of the drama occurs when a Japanese officer invites the convent girls to attend celebration of his army's victory in the city. He says they are to sing for the general, but Miller and Yu Mo know the truth: the girls will be raped and killed. So they come up with a brilliant and not at all stupid plan: the prostitutes will go in place of the girls.

This is the story of how the potential rape and murder of 13 girls is averted by simply providing different girls - one of whom is forced to go, kicking and screaming by Miller. I can't get behind that. And the notion that these are somehow better victims, because they are prostitutes, is unseemly. But accepting the story (perhaps true) on its own terms for a moment, Yimou's film is a mess. Out of place comedy moments abound, as child rape and slapstick hijinks are often a mere moment away from one another. The action, when it happens, is gruesome and absurd. High-octane in the usual style of the director but this time grounded in a mucky episode of history, for some in living memory.

The acting is awful, the musical interludes (two terrible songs) are spectacularly misjudged (though a Japanese officer mistakenly informs us his piano ballad is the best song ever written), and the film's tendency to caricature the Japanese soldiers sells short what is actually profound about these horrid events: that they were perpetuated by human beings. It's not often that the distance between a film's opinion of itself - here as an earnest high-drama - is so far short of the calamitous reality. If it weren't based on such nasty events it would very funny.

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