Billed as ‘an epic tale of love and war’, 'The Flowers Of War' focuses on the brutal Japanese invasion of the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937, at the start of the Sino-Japanese war. Although the events of this massacre are little known in the West, the extensive civilian suffering surrounding the occupation of Nanjing is still a controversial and incredibly sensitive subject for both the Chinese and Japanese.
'The Flowers Of War' stars current Batman hotshot Christian Bale as an alcoholic drifter who finds himself caught up in the middle of the chaos. Unwittingly charged with the responsibility of looking after a group of shell-shocked schoolgirls and seductive courtesans within a walled church, he is the only thing standing in between them and a grisly end at the hands of the invading Japanese troops.
From the opening titles the film carries visual hallmarks of Chinese director Yimou Zhang ('House Of Flying Daggers', 'Hero'), who has become famed for his violent, yet visually stunning work. Zhang immediately immerses the audience into the middle of a brutal and disorientating warzone, reminiscent of Spielberg’s electrifying opening in 'Saving Private Ryan'.
The difference between 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'The Flowers Of War', and indeed any other war film, is Zhang’s almost obsessive preoccupation with beauty in terms of composition and colour, something which is quite disconcerting when viewing scenes of savage and extreme bloodshed.
The violence is brutally and realistically depicted, and although it tells the story of the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, at times it’s shockingly harrowing and graphic. Balancing this is the relationship between unlikely hero John Miller (played by Bale) and the schoolgirls in his charge. The cast are first rate, and it’s due to their impressive performances that 'The Flowers Of War' is such an emotionally engrossing film to watch.
The film trips effortlessly between English, Nanjing Mandarin and Japanese, but the story and the actors are so compelling that it’s barely noticeable when switching between languages. 13-year-old Zhang Xinyi makes her big screen debut and provides much of the narration for the film, and it’s an effective construct to see such human atrocities viewed through the eyes of an innocent child.
'The Flowers Of War' has come under fire from those that say this is just another cinematic depiction of the ‘white man saving the native’, but this is unfair criticism. Zhang treats the subject matter with the utmost respect and objectivity, and the film attempts to show the motivations and feelings of those on all sides, not just the Chinese.
However, the film’s far-fetched sub-plot demands a suspension of disbelief, even though the film itself carries the adage ‘inspired by true events’ and is based on Yan Geling’s novel 'The Thirteen Flowers Of War', which she herself created from the testimonies of those in Nanjing at the time of the invasion.
Understandably 'The Flowers Of War' hasn’t been met with smiles from the Japanese, but this is an ambitious historical epic which shines a light on a terrible human atrocity that to this day remains strangely relatively unknown in the West. With a running time of 145 minutes this isn’t light or easy viewing, but it’s a moving story, which is also visually stunning, poetic and harrowing. While not expected to make big bucks at the box-office, hopefully this will find an audience in those who enjoy big budget war films with an emotional core.
'The Flowers Of War' is released in the UK from 3 August, through Revolver. Pre-order on amazon.co.uk ahead of its 6 August DVD and Blu-ray release.