Garish Flowers of War

The Flowers of War begins December 13, 1937, with young convent girls fleeing for their lives through a besieged Nanjing shrouded in mist. The first words heard are those of the lead girl Shujuan: “Everybody was running that day but no one could escape the thick fog.”

It feels odd to have such a young actress reflect on events that occurred long before her lifetime, yet the opening monologue succeeds with immediate tension.

Along the way, the girls cross paths with a company of soldiers, a band of prostitutes and an American mortician. These unlikely allies are brought together by coincidence and by the violence of the ongoing Nanjing massacre. Only once the survivors have all taken refuge within the walls of a Catholic church does the narrative truly begin, with a story that touches the deepest and most universal themes of the human condition, those of life and death, sacrifice and salvation.

The church, at first a safe haven, eventually succumbs to the outside aggressors. When this happens, the ultimate choice has to be made about who to sacrifice and who to save, the prostitutes or the convent girls.

The film’s trailer uses eroticism as a marketing tactic to lure viewers into theaters. I can’t help but feel that selling the movie on sex appeal was incredibly shortsighted. This so-dubbed “erotic nationalism” may be pandering to the tastes of a mass audience and raising expectations that prompt a search for sexual motives where none are intended, oversimplifying the story as one about “prostitutes saving virgins.”

Much of the responsibility for extreme interpretations of the movie by audiences and critics lies with the moviemakers themselves. Criticism from feminists is not entirely fair. It is true that Zhang Yimou is fond of grandiose plots with strong male roles. However in this case, screenwriters Yan Gelin and Liu Heng worked hard to improve the gender balance. They tried not to frame the prostitutes as moral victims and instead portrayed their decision to sacrifice themselves to protect the convent girls not as an act of patriotism but as individual choices in a moment of desperation. Yet they barely succeeded in overcoming such traditional stereotypes.

Indeed, despite its efforts in setting a consistent backdrop for the finale, the movie fails to offer clear motives for many of the characters and hence their actions and ultimate choice seem too much like a deliberate plot device. This, in addition to overly dramatic scenes that clash with common sense, weakens the story’s credibility.

The Flowers of War is Zhang Yimou’s first war movie. In 2002, the release of the martial arts movie Hero marked the beginning of an era of Zhang Yimou blockbusters. Compared with inconsistent House of Flying Daggers and shallow Hero, Flowers of War offers a much richer experience. However, this improvement has not prevented heated debate among critics. Some say The Flowers of War is Zhang Yimou’s best film in a decade, while others claim it’s his worst.

“Improving discipline is our first step, otherwise we risk making Chinese people lose face” a crew member explained during the making of documentary. “We will produce a world-class Chinese movie” announced producer Zhang Weiping at a ceremony before shooting began.

These statements inadvertently revealed the fixation on an “epic” narrative. It was this same infatuation behind the flamboyant Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in 2008, also directed by Zhang Yimou. The technical and artistic prowess he displayed for the opening ceremony led many Chinese netizens to nickname him “teacher of the state”—a title previously bestowed upon the personal instructors of emperors. With such difficult achievements to top, no wonder Zhang Yimou felt pressure to create another blockbuster.

Ironically, it appears the “teacher” followed in the footsteps of the state. The financial success of Hero, which made 200 million yuan at the domestic box office, began the commercialization of Chinese cinema. Just as GDP has become the standard measure of China’s rising economic power, box office figures have become the new measure for movies. Regardless how a film is received, it’s deemed a success if it grosses high figures at the box office.

Of course, the Oscar for best foreign language film is still the most enticing prize. Yet box office receipts growth and cutting into box office revenues for imported films have already been deemed signs of a national victory for Chinese cinema.

There is no doubt that Zhang Yimou’s crew members are professionals who scored high in technical achievement. True, it’s difficult to discern what sets apart the very best movies from rest, but at least they successfully duplicated Hollywood’s production quality.

While commercial success is what keeps Hollywood alive, it is at its core about building dreams that inspire and comfort the audience. Given that the talent and technical ability of the crew is on par with Hollywood, Flowers of War is a disappointment. Ultimately, while it is grandiose and its cinematography is impressive, it’s noticeably lacking in true character. Money alone cannot buy genuine creativity, nor can it buy dreams and imagination.

The Flowers of War did not win an Oscar. The best foreign language film award this year went to the Iranian film A Separation about the struggles of a middle class Iranian family. The Chinese movie industry is much larger in scale, yet movie censorship in Iran is more restrictive. As such, A Separation demonstrated remarkable creativity, free-thinking and artistic dedication.

While Zhang Yimou’s storytelling may appear weak at times, he proved a good script can be used to create classics such as To Live and Red Sorghum. More low-key films such as Keep Cool and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles have shown he’s also able to create down-to-earth yet memorable movies.

Sadly, Zhang Yimou has been increasingly drawn to grandiose pursuits. The results have been increasingly out of balance and out of touch with his audience.

At least Christian Bale’s conduct shows he’s not afraid to practice what he preaches. The weaknesses and human struggles he confronts as a mortician with a conscience in Flowers of War reflects his own personal experience as an actor. In this industry, that kind of sincerity became a rare commodity long ago.

Grandiose but shallow are now common flaws seen in mainstream Chinese movies, but that has not stopped the film industry from reaping financial rewards. The violent scenario of Flowers of War has been criticized as excessive. Certainly compared to many smaller movies that fail to be approved by government censors, the restrictions on this movie were very limited.

The artistic spirit of Chinese movies has been eroded by commercialization and a double-standard that suppresses some while pandering and giving privileges to