The Flowers of War is Zhang Yimou's latest movie. It is based on the novel The thirteen Flowers of Nanjing by Yan Geling. After a few monumental productions, which I did not really enjoy, this movie was announced to be a renaissance of the artistic Zhang Yimou which would have benefited from his more recent experiences in modern productions also.
The story of this movie is set in the Nanjing of 1937 during the brutal invasion and occupation by Japanese troops. As this was definitely one of history's most savage crimes against humanity and one of the deepest traumas in China's collective memory, any story in this setting will shake emotions strongly. So does the Flowers of War. An American vagabond called John Miller (played by Christian Bale) makes it through the chaos of the battles into a fictive Catholic church. Here he ends up taking responsibility for the girls of the convent school an orphan boy and 12 prostitutes taking also shelter there. The disreputable John Miller takes on the priest robe and role towards the Japanese to protect the girls. The narrator is one of the school girls (Zhang Xinyi). In the middle of a brutal setting, unfolds a love story of the protagonist with one of the prostitutes (Ni Ni) which finds its end in them standing in for the convict girls being most violently forced to "serve" the Japanese soldiers in one of their parties while the girls can escape out of the city. If anybody needs an illustration why Iris Chang titled her book The Rape of Nanking, then after having seen this movie, it is terribly obvious.
Of course any movie set in the centre of the massacre of Nanking (now Nanjing) is shaking any audience emotions. But I found it pressing too crudely on the love and hate "buttons". For me the movie is definitely falling short against the movies City of Life and Death by Lu Chuan, Nanking by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturmann and also against John Rabe by Florian Gallenberger. I did not have the chance yet to read Yan Geling's novel. But I am looking forward to read it when I find a good translation and compare it with the very different story in the same setting called Love in a Fallen City by Zhang Ailing.
Perhaps it is that Zhang Yimou did not develop a deeper impression against the brutal background, that it also seemed to me on first sight like an anti-Japanese propaganda movie. The movie seems playing on sentimental patriotism and daemonizing the Japanese enemy. But sure, given the historical background there is also not much on the Japanese side which would allow a balanced view. The second thought I had that perhaps it is just another successful attempt of Zhang Yimou maximizing the box office revenue of his movies. After having started as a brilliant director, The Flowers of War again follow a soap opera recipe and the movie is for that disappointing. It could make Zhang Yimou the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Chinese cinema. And I will still go and watch his movies, but just as I watch a musical. Not more, not less. Just not sure whether Chinese cinema really needs a "Hollywood".