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.