Film Review: The Flowers of War
The major criticisms of Yimou Zhang’s The Flowers of War have been that of spectacle trouncing drama, and the ‘unnecessary’ inclusion of a fictional Westerner in order to tell the story of two greatly contrasted groups of women fighting to survive the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing. Roger Ebert was even quoted as saying, ‘Can you think of any reason the character of John Miller was needed to tell this story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?’
The fact of the matter is, The Flowers of War is a great story, one of an event that has been documented on film previously in the form of Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death. This particular telling of the story though, was in fact made possible by Christian Bale’s character, a Western mortician unwillingly caught up in the invasion. Sure, his character could have been Chinese if only to satisfy the wants and needs of such ailing critics as Roger Ebert, but to eliminate the Westerner from this story would have been to discount the importance of compassion and redemption as themes that run rich throughout the film.
The path of John Miller is a predictable one. He enters a Catholic church initially for refuge, and secondly to carry out his duty as a mortician. The resident preist had recently passed on, and Miller was simply sent to do his job. While he is unashamedly reluctant to help the young group of students that have sought sanctuary in every sense of the word, he is soon exposed to the true brutality of the Japanese infantry and finds himself compelled to ensure the safety and potential evacuation of the convent. If not for his Western ignorance, his eventual transformation into dedicated philanthropist would not be anywhere close to as affecting had the character of John Miller been a ‘Chinese priest’.
In the middle of it all, a group of refugee prostitutes have also, by way of climbing over the church walls, managed to find sanctuary in the church. From this point, the bulk of the film is comprised of the forging of these unexpected relationships that base themselves on an unavoidable situation and the unifying need to survive. Interspersed with some truly breathtaking battle scenes that are as bloody as they are beautiful, Xiaoding ‘House of Flying Daggers’ Zhao’s cinematography (though about 30% too dark in too many scenes) is as important to the film’s success as Bale’s typically commanding performance.
The film works on a variety of levels, but really thrives in the dramatic moments between the two groups of women who although entirely polarised, slowly begin to discover the delicate similarities which will eventually contribute to their final push for survival.