“Flowers of War”: The Reviews Are In
Hollywood star Christian Bale stars in the new Zhang Yimou movie “Flowers of War” about the Rape of Nanking during World War II, which many have seen as Zhang’s effort to secure China’s first Oscar. After Bale was roughed up while attempting to visit activist Chen Guangcheng, currently under house arrest in Shandong, speculation has been rife about what impact his actions will have on the success of the movie, which is currently a box office favorite in China. Variety speculates that it will not influence the film’s chances of winning an Oscar:
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin was asked whether the incident had been embarrassing for the country, and Liu countered by saying he thought Bale should be embarrassed, not China. Bale had been invited by the film’s director, Zhang Yimou, to attend the opening ceremony of “Flowers of War,” not “to fabricate news or shoot film in a certain village,” Liu said. “I think if you want to make up news in China, you will not be welcome here.” Bale, who said he learned of Chen’s imprisonment for bringing attention to China’s forced abortion program while shooting “Flowers of War,” most likely set out to spotlight China’s treatment of dissidents. However, other journalists and diplomats have tried to visit Chen and have been chased off; the presence of CNN cameras this time around only amplified the situation. Even so, it’s unlikely the incident will affect the Oscar chances of a film that has already had its fair share of controversy. One observer said that the foreign-language Oscar race still comes down to the quality of the movies. “At the end of the day, people either respond to the film or they don’t.”
U.S. reviewers have now responded, and it seems that Bale’s actions may not be the only hurdle standing in the way of an Oscar for Zhang Yimou. From the New York Times’ review:
There’s nothing that says the atrocity blockbuster has to be a disaster in its own right; films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Gallipoli” have their good points. But long before its two and a half hours are up, “The Flowers of War” is sunk by the disproportion between the events being portrayed and Mr. Zhang’s distanced, strangely frivolous treatment of them — in essence, his refusal to take a point of view on one of the most gruesome chapters in Chinese history.
“Flowers” has received bountiful publicity for being expensive, state-approved and Oscar-submitted, buzz that got louder last week when the film’s British star, Christian Bale, was forcibly prevented from visiting a Chinese activist lawyer being held under house arrest.
But fears that Mr. Zhang would take a one-dimensional, patriotic approach to the Japanese invasion and occupation of Nanjing (formerly Nanking), while not entirely unfounded, are misplaced. Other recent Chinese films have displayed more sentimental nationalism, jingoism and demonization of the Japanese enemy.
His real approach to the events of 1937 is to use them as a backdrop for the kind of deluxe, Hollywood-inspired melodrama that has made him an art-house favorite. In the process he fails to deliver on most of the elements — grandeur, historical sweep, genuine pathos — that would have made the film worthwhile.
Having helmed “House of Flying Daggers,” not to mention the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies, Zhang is no stranger to spectacle. Its place in a tale of brutality and emotional devastation is another matter — even if, in their very muchness, the lurid beauty of the visuals (photographed by frequent Zhang collaborator Zhao Xiaoding) and the hokey exaggerations of the story are well matched. All that’s missing are characters as fully realized as their surroundings.
“The Flowers of War,” a melodramatic tale of unlikely heroism set during the Japanese invasion of Nanking, is affecting at times, but finally feels overblown and heavy-handed. It’s a disappointment from director Zhang Yimou (“Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern”).
[...] There are moments of genuine emotion here, and Zhang powerfully underlines the horrors of this dreadful moment in history, but much of what happens feels cooked up, some of it plain silly. The characters’ rising to the moral occasion should be deeply moving, but isn’t really justified dramatically. It seems more like the triumph of sentimental movie conventions.
See a trailer for the film: