The Rape of Nanking, the 1937 rape and murder rampage by Japanese troops, comes so vividly to life in “The Flowers of War” that you wish the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou had a better movie to put in front of it. Japan, both officially and informally, has spent the intervening 74 years ignominiously denying this mass slaughter of women and children ever happened. A great historical film using it as a backdrop is overdue.
But while the filmmaker who gave us “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern” presents an epic of a city reduced to black rubble and grey ash, the cliche-riddled story of a cynical American (Christian Bale) ennobled by the task of rescuing helpless convent school girls is an epic eye-roller.
Based on the Yan Geling novel, “Flowers” begins with the last gasps of the battle for the city. Civilians are fleeing and the heroic Major Li (Tong Dawei) leads his band of soldiers in a last ditch effort to save them from the marauding, raping and bayonetting Japanese. The combat scenes have the verve of an action film or a first person shooter video game.
For every child Major Li saves with his sniper rifle, half a dozen others die.
The lucky few are students of a school at a Catholic church in the city, a refuge under Western protection. The priest has died, and the boy (Huang Tianyuan) in charge has summoned a mortician (Bale), who weaves through the combat zone waving an American flag handkerchief, showing off his Western beard, yelling “I am an American” at every Japanese patrol. After braving this, John Miller finds no corpse, no money to pay him, a dozen schoolgirls, a wrecked truck and a ready supply of wine.
The walled convent, however, is “safe.” And the fact that he’s a Westerner protects him. When a gang of gorgeous, overdressed prostitutes forces its way in, their leader Yu Mo (Ni Ni), sizes up the Yank.
“Your face is the way out of here,” she purrs. “If you help us, I will thank you in ways you cannot imagine!”
But John Miller, who is a lecherous drunk, isn’t biting..
The film has poignant, heart-tugging moments and dollops of low comedy mixed in with the graphic, unspeakable horror. “Sanctuary” meant nothing to a city overrun by by leering, out of control goons in uniform.
“We’ve got VIRGINS” the soldiers bellow when they overrun the place. Finally, Miller is moved to act. Donning a clerical collar, he transforms into a righteous priest, “Father John,” a man who will do his utmost to save these women and girls.
The cliches pile on the floor like spent cartridges as we meet the refined, music-loving Japanese officer (Atsuro Watabe) who apologizes for his soldiers and is serenaded by the bloodied, shell-shocked choir.
Characters act out of melodramatic impulses — risking life and limb over silly plot devices that send them out into the streets, heedlessly. Major Li’s exploits are straight out of the Bruce Willis at War playbook.
A good dramatization of this massacre could serve as a sobering slap to a Japan that still wants to see itself as a victim of World War II, not a racist, often barbaric antagonist. But “The Flowers of War,” veering from the sensational to the maudlin, is a compromised epic that panders to the Chinese audience. Zhang Yimou and his team seem to have absorbed Yu Mo’s line about what is happening to the victims, much to the film’s detriment.
“Sometimes, the truth is the last thing we need to hear.”
MPAA rating: unrated, with graphic violence, scenes of rape andmurder, some involving children
Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tianyuan Huang, Atsuro Watabe, Paul Schneider
Credits: Directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Liu Heng ad Yan Geling, based on the novel by Yan Geling. A Row 1/Wrekin Hill release. Running time: 2:22