As a measure of the burgeoning confidence of Chinese big budget cinema, Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War (2011) falls some considerable distance short of its Hollywood contemporaries. Despite the lofty highbrow aspirations of Yimou, both visually and thematically, one of the failings of the film can be laid squarely at the feet of the one and only Dark Knight himself – Christian Bale.
Bale plays American John Miller, a mortician who must forsake his selfish Western ideals and transform himself into hero incumbent in order to protect a group of female innocents from the brutalities of the invading Japanese army during the Nanjing Massacre of the Second World War. Ironically, whereas this vulnerable group of females in peril were in need of Bale as gravel-voiced Batman to save them, what they get instead is Bale’s take on an arrogant, spoilt and lecherous Bruce Wayne. Miller’s subsequent transformation into the patriarchal saviour is all the more outlandish given the context of the real life atrocities of the massacre.
The Flowers of War takes a number of missteps which call into question the film’s status as a blockbuster with global box office aspirations. In short, the film is simply littered with a host of uncomfortable stereotypes, from the crass self-centred American, to the stoic inscrutable heroism of a lone Chinese soldier, to the wicked cartoonish villainy of the Japanese forces. Whilst the absolute binary oppositions offered are almost rendered forgiveable, it remains more difficult to be as charitable about the depiction of the central female characters which drive the films narrative forward.
The flowers of the title, a group of overtly exotic and sexualised prostitutes, are framed as tainted women and thus morally reprehensible – this judgement on the women is passed down in no uncertain terms by the religiously devout schoolgirls. They are all held captive in an abandoned church, and it is in this refuge that their morale conflicts will ultimately lead to connections as the bonds of the women and girls are slowly forged against the back drop of the rape of Nanjing. To the credit of Yimou, this aspect of the film is endearing, undeniably emotional if not entirely convincing. However, the hulking bulk of Bale is never far away to sour the tone of reconciliation with a laughable love triangle thrown in for good measure.
There is still much to be found in The Flowers of War that will linger in the mind – the atrocities of the Nanjing massacre are shot masterfully by Yimou, leaving the desired feelings of shock, horror and morale outrage. However, the central problem is that the film will probably be remembered as an oddity, ‘the Chinese film with Batman in it’, which is ultimately a disservice to the historic potency of the subject material.