Pedigree is often key to understanding what a film has to offer, but never more so than when a country's government is present at the moment of conception. And when the government is that of China — which indirectly financed The Flowers of War, a graphic retelling of the horrific 1937 Nanking Massacre that occurred at the hands of the Japanese — cries of propaganda inevitably precede the film. No one can deny the movie's obvious interest in framing history for a global audience. But other than the number of victims, the facts of the massacre have never really been open to question: most estimates range between 100,000 to 300,000 civilians murdered after the capitol city was taken, and tens of thousands of adults and children raped.
The Flowers of War's biggest problems lie not in its politics, but in its art. With a budget of $94 million, it's the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, and it is simply gorgeous. Director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) is a world-class filmmaker clearly at the top of his game. The story involves two sets of "flowers" — one a class of 12-year-old girls, the other a slightly older group of women from the town brothel — hiding together from atrocity under the watchful eye of an American mortician (Christian Bale). Unfortunately, it's all too steeped in melodrama to gain any traction. You can't shake the feeling that the movie should never have been made this way — not as an old-fashioned Hollywood-style weepie. It doesn't suit the subject matter, which would have been far better served by a clear-eyed, unsentimental character study. That said, it's almost impossible to take your eyes off the screen. — KEN KORMAN
The Flowers of War (R)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Xinyi Zhang