Christian Bale first came to prominence as a teenager, starring in a film about Japan’s invasion of China. In Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun Bale plays a British boy who watches the Japanese army overrun Shanghai in late 1941 and is then interned in a concentration camp. So Zhang Yimou’s decision to cast Bale in his latest movie sees the Welsh-born actor return to familiar territory. Not only is he in China, faced with the invading Japanese. But the two films also share a common theme in exploring the end of childhood against the brutal backdrop of war.
Zhang is China’s most internationally acclaimed director – it’s no accident that WiC has mentioned him in 19 separate articles (for a brief profile see our Red Star in issue 7).
His early movies were gritty, arthouse affairs beloved by critics – To Live won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and many cite Raise the Red Lantern as their favourite Chinese film.
Then came a series of more commercial hits in history-cum-martial arts formats: Hero, The House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower.
But for his latest offering, Zhang changes direction again, producing his first film about China’s war with Japan.
Clearly, two of Spielberg’s own war movies have made their mark on Zhang’s effort, Flowers of War. The opening scenes – in which the Japanese army is moving through the decimated city of Nanjing – recall the vivid cinematography of the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan. As with Spielberg’s storming of the Normandy beaches, Zhang also gives audiences a disturbingly firsthand view of battle conditions, as Chinese troops make their last-stand defence. Grim but memorable is a suicide attack by a platoon on a column of Japanese tanks.
As the plot progresses, it becomes clearer that the movie’s main debt is to Schindler’s List. Similar to Spielberg’s celebrated movie, Zhang’s film is about human dignity, heroism and self-sacrifice.
To the Chinese, the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ remains an unforgettable event, with a level of brutality that constituted genocide. In December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army entered the then Chinese capital and killed between 200,000 and 300,000. In the process an estimated 80,000 women and children were raped by Japan’s soldiers.
The massacre continues to be a deeply emotive topic in China – where feelings about Japanese war crimes rise quickly to the surface. The usual Chinese approach to commemorating the awfulness of the event has been to depict the Japanese as hell’s denizens. But in Zhang’s movie he again takes a leaf from Spielberg’s book, giving at least one of the enemy a more humanised voice. In this case it is from an urbane Japanese officer who briefly provides protection to the film’s protagonists, and who apologies for his soldiers’ behaviour. The officer professes a love of choral music, and is even shown playing a folk song about being homesick.
Zhang’s stylistic borrowings are not altogether surprising: The Flowers of War was, from inception, targeted as a Chinese candidate for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. And Spielberg, after all, has plenty of Oscar-winning form.
The film itself is trilingual – switching between Mandarin, English and Japanese. The setting is a convent school in the heart of Nanjing, lone survivor amid the surrounding shelled carnage due to its international status. Inside are a group of 12 year-old female students and a young boy, George Chen. The convent’s priest is dead, which occasions the arrival of Bale, who plays an American mortician. Also seeking sanctuary are 14 courtesans from Nanjing’s famed Qinhuai red light district. They force their way into a hidden cellar.
The courtesan leader is Yu Mo (played by newcomer actress, Ni Ni, age 23) who initially plans to seduce Bale and use his Western bonafides to get the group out of the city. This doesn’t look like misplaced calculation. Bale’s character begins the film, bearded, drunk and lecherous. His sole goal in the opening scenes is to find out where the Catholic priest keeps the convent’s funds. And in the early part of the movie the survival of the young girls owes more to the acts of bravery of a lone Chinese sniper who keeps a Japanese platoon at bay (at the final cost of his own life) than Bale.
But the remainder of the film becomes a journey of rehabilitation. Bale rediscovers a dignity lost with the death of daughter a few years before, and he evolves into the protector of the 12 convent girls.
Yu and the prostitutes eventually show their own nobility too. And along the way, a love story evolves between Yu and Bale, with another plot strand following the difficult relationship between schoolgirl Shu and her father, who has become a Japanese collaborator.
Inevitably, the film makes for uncomfortable viewing. with bayoneting, rape and murder. Even the ‘good’ Japanese officer doesn’t prove ultimately worthy, complying with orders that the schoolgirls be sent to a party where they are set to be raped and killed by members of the army’s high command.
Zhang’s followers may see signs of fusion with Western cinema in The Flowers of War. But his sure technique is still evident. And given many Europeans and Americans are unaware of the horrors that happened in Nanjing, the movie also offers an opportunity (roughly 40% of the dialogue is in English) to relive this terrible chapter in history.
Three of the Chinese cast speak fluent English in the film. One of them, Ni Ni was discovered by Zhang at Nanjing’s Communication University. In keeping with his vision of Flowers of War as a grand project, Ni was cast four years ago and given three years to train for the role of Yu. Like Zhang’s earlier finds (Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi) she emerges from the film with star quality.
And in an indication of its importance, Flowers of War is the most expensive film in Chinese cinema history. It cost Rmb600 million ($94 million) to make, thanks in part to salaries but also to efforts to make the Winchester Convent set look as realistic as possible, as well as the commissioning of a musical score featuring renowned violinist Joshua Bell. The final bill easily breaks Zhang’s previous record, the $45 million spent on Curse of the Golden Flower (which was also entered for an Oscar in 2006).
The Flowers of War began showing on Chinese screens last month but has already taken Rmb600 million at the Chinese box office – and is likely to see a further surge over the Lunar New Year holiday period.
It opens in US cinemas today, but according to the Wall Street Journal it has not made the Oscar shortlist – which will disappoint Zhang.
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