Follow us on

Featured DVD / Blu-ray Review: The Flowers of War

July 25th, 2012

The Flowers of War - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

The Flowers of War was filmed in 2010 with a production budget of roughly $100 million, making it the most expensive Chinese film ever made. It was also the biggest Chinese hit in its native market the year it was released. On the other hand, despite have a big name lead, Christian Bale, it went nowhere here. Is it a good movie that deserves to be seen by more? Or without the historical connection, is it a weak film?

The Movie

The film begins with a voiceover by a school girl explaining that the Japanese army has overtaken the Chinese city of Nanking. A man is leading a group of girls to safety, but some of the girls get separated. It looks like they will all be killed by the Japanese, or worse, but the last remaining Chinese soldiers sacrifice themselves to save the kids. Meanwhile John Miller is also running through the streets. He's here to go to Winchester Cathedral to bury the head priest, who had recently passed away. He isn't a priest himself, but a mortician. In the chaos of the battle, John becomes lost, but runs into the two girls that were separated from their class. They help John get to the Cathedral.

When John gets to the Cathedral he just wants to do his job, get his money, and leave. However, when he gets there he discovers this will be a lot more difficult. Father Ingleman didn't just die, he was hit by a bomb. There's no body to bury. Also, there's no money. There is a broken down truck, which George Chen, the only boy at the church, wants to fix. John, on the other hand, wants to strip it for parts that he can then sell for the money he's owed. Clearly, he doesn't care about the plight of these girls.

George doesn't have time to deal with John, because the church grounds come under siege by prostituted, high-class prostitutes. It seems the Cathedral's cook, Gu, promised the prostitutes they could stay at the church if the Japanese invaded, because the Japanese wouldn't attack a western church. When George refuses to let them in, Yu Mo, decides to throw her luggage over the wall and climb in after it. At least John is excited to see more people stay at the church, although some of the girls are fascinated by glamorous ladies. At first, John is just interested in drinking the sacramental wine and flirting with the ladies, but when he realizes what would happen to the young girls should the Japanese get their hands on them, he decides to pretend to be the priest. This works, for a little while, but he knows he will have to come up with some plan to get them out of the city.

The Flowers of War has problems and a lot of that has to do with Christian Bale, some directly, some indirectly. The first problem is that his character is, as George describes him, a jerk. For much of the early film he is a jerk, and not in a charming roguish sort of way. Also, since you know he will have a redemptive moment and change his ways, his jerkiness comes across as rather artificial. It's a plot contrivance, nothing more. Indirectly, his character is a problem in two ways. Firstly, it's a film about a real event in Chinese history, made by a Chinese studio, aimed at a Chinese audience. Do we really need an American in the lead? (I'm referring to the character as American. I realize Christian Bale is Welsh.) I understand there's some reasoning behind this. The Japanese didn't attack the Cathedral because it was a Western institution and having a Westerner in charge helped emphasize that. That said, it still felt like a marketing decision instead of a thematic one. Finally, because Christian Bale was in the movie, the Chinese actors needed to speak a lot of English. There are a number of actors in the film who were clearly not as comfortable with English and if the film was wholly in Mandarin, the overall acting quality would have been higher. There's one additional problem. There are too many characters and not enough of them are given enough emotional depth to stand out. Of the dozen school girls, only Shu (Zhang Xinyi) is given any real depth, while Yu Mo is the only prostitute that is true of.

On the positive side, the story is an important one and for the most part the film avoids becoming too maudlin. It is difficult to watch at times, but not exploitative, with the right emotional punch delivered. The film looks great; it has an epic feel to the few battle scenes but the smaller more human moments are also beautifully shot. And the acting level is good, when not hampered by the language difficulties. Unfortunately, the positive aspects don't quite compensate for the negative ones. It's close, but the end result is merely average.

The Extras

The only extras on the DVD is a behind-the-scenes featurette. At first that sounds disappointing, but it is split into five parts and the total running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes. That's impressive. It touches on how the film was first conceived, written, etc.; the actors, many of whom were very inexperienced; the creating of the massive war scenes; and getting the look of the film right. I don't have the Blu-ray to compare, but it costs 33% more than the DVD does on, which is an acceptable price.

The Verdict

The Flowers of War could have been a great movie, but it feels like a missed opportunity. If you are interested in a different World War II story than we usually see in Hollywood movies, it is worth checking out, while the extras on the DVD and the Blu-ray are better than expected. Call it a solid rental.

- Submitted by:

Filed under: Video Review, Jin líng shí san chai