Zhang Yimou’s new film The Flowers of the War

Just before Christmas, I was interviewed by the BBC about Zhang Yimou’s new film The Flowers of the War about 13 prostitutes scarifying themselves to save the lives of 13 girls from a convent. The interview was partly my review of the film partly and partly my answer to their question if this is a propaganda film.

Of course, I had to watch the film – courtesy of the BBC and I was going to do so anyway for many reasons. It’s a film about Nanjing Massacre, a subject that interests me, a Nanjing native. I much enjoyed the film as I found the film in Nanjing dialect endearing. It certainly stands head and shoulder higher than most of the Chinese films. Yet I found it unsatisfying despite its enormous potential to be a truly great one.

I don’t think it is a propaganda film but rather China’s effort in pushing its film industry onto the world stage and more importantly, director Zhang Yimou’s bid for Oscar, something he got his eyes on for a while. When he read the novel Flowers of the War by famous writer Yan Geling, he became very excited. I remember Yan, a friend, talked about this. I think Zhou saw it as his ticket to Oscar. He had wanted to produce a Chinese version of the Schindler’s list, something profound that reflects the insight of human mind set against a dramatic backdrop, such as a war.

I am afraid that he’ll be disappointed. To me, the film lacks depth. It places far too much emphasis on the American fake priest, played by Hollywood star Christian Bale, brought in perhaps to attract the international audience. But the character is unconvincing as the plot itself: his transformation from a ‘jerk’ to an unselfish noble man is far too abrupt. And we audience don’t know enough about where he was coming from to feel connected with him.

I think it would have been much better to focus on the women from a brothel and the self-righteous young girls at Winchester Cathedral and the conflicts between the two groups with different interests and values. The flowers girls went to the cathedral because no where else would accept them. The girls wouldn’t either.

As suggested in the title, the film should have been a women’s film as in the original book. The Hollywood star stole the show but did a poor job. Some minor characters are far more memorable, the house-keeper Gu, and a young prostitute who got herself killed after she went back to the brothel to get the strings in order to play music for her dead friend.

The film passes the censorship easily because it is the sort of film that goes down well here, a film that shows the Chinese in good light and a film about Nanjing Massacre. To be fair, an important and dramatic historical event always provides plenty of material for dramas. Our government particularly loves films that show the past suffering which also reflect the glory of the Chinese Communist Party. So it is no surprise that the most expensive film ever made is partly funded by the government.

I so much wanted to like the film but I am a bit disappointed that it doesn’t live up to my expectations. Good try, Zhang Yimou. May the lesson is that banking on big stars may not always work. He’d be better off to focus and develop rounded characters as he has done in his early films.

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2 thoughts on “Zhang Yimou’s new film The Flowers of the War

  1. Real quick, I think you mean “sacrificing” instead of “scarifying”, and “Maybe” instead of “May”.

    I strongly agree it shouldn’t be characterized as a “propaganda” film, a characterization that I’m disappointed to see so many foreigners and especially Westerners trot out, even before they’ve actually seen the movie and worse after they have. I can’t be certain but it smacks of people going in looking for anything to confirm their preconception and prejudice. Some reviews come off as being much too eager to find fault of the disparaging and derisive sort.

    The film definitely doesn’t reach the level of Schindler’s List and Zhang’s contention for an Oscar isn’t that strong.

    Regarding Bale’s performance, I think he did alright, not great, but it was okay. I didn’t find his transformation to be that abrupt personally and I don’t think he needed to be developed more for the audience to connect with him. It’s a very simple “this has nothing to do with me” to “this is too horrible for me to not do something” transition and I thought Zhang’s portrayal of the agonizing hesitation and indecision amidst the screaming of the girls that Bale knows is going to end badly was dramatic enough for audiences to understand that no matter how much he was here just for pay, he couldn’t actually just stand by idly and let some young girls get raped. On that aspect, I thought it was okay.

    But I agree that there were moments where his acting (or perhaps the scripting) was lacking, where reactions seemed odd and out of place. I agree further that Zhang could’ve done more with the girls and the prostitutes but I don’t think he did too little either. It’s a weird balance of things and maybe in the end, it does feel like Zhang gave 50% to Bale and 50% to the girls and prostitutes when he probably should’ve done something closer to 33 and 66%. But I do think it was clear that a major theme of the movie was about how the girl (semi-narrator) came to see both Bale and the prostitutes differently through their eventual actions.

    Gu was awesome.

    Finally, in your paragraph about passing censorship, are you suggesting the film reflects the glory of the Chinese Communist Party through its narrative/plot or through its juxtaposition with modern day China?

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