The actual extent of the Nanking Massacre remains a contentious subject between China and Japan, with the latter claiming that the rape, torture, and slaughter of civilians during its 1937 invasion of the Chinese capital has been exaggerated, while the former says records were deliberately destroyed to downplay the victims’ numbers. The arguments over the true history of the invasion have found a natural new channel via The Flowers Of War, China’s most expensive film to date, and its official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The film certainly could be seen as propaganda, given its depiction of Japanese soldiers as slavering, rape-driven monsters (“We’ve got virgins!” one howls in exultation upon spotting a group of adolescent girls), and Japanese officers as sensitive aesthetes whose sense of duty compels them to accept—and abet, and preside over—systematic barbarity. (Chinese soldiers, by contrast, are seen as endlessly noble and self-sacrificing.) But for audiences not bound up in the film’s politics and history, the problem isn’t so much propaganda as extreme melodrama.
Christian Bale stars as an American mortician visiting Nanking to help bury a local priest, but given that the city has become a pile of smoky rubble haunted by screaming, filth-streaked refugees, his priorities change: Once he learns there’s no one at the cathedral but a handful of barely pubescent girls and one ineffectual teenage boy, he moves in to take advantage of the place’s high wall, comfortable beds, and wine supply. When a group of prostitutes from the nearby pleasure district arrive, he sees them as another avenue for casual debauchery. Inevitably, though, the horrors the Japanese inflict on the city spark Bale’s sense of conscience, and he begins working to save his band of potential victims, mostly from the Japanese threat, though sometimes from themselves and each other.
When it comes to personal politics, Flowers Of War is well thought-through, complicated, and compelling. There’s plenty of insular, realistic drama to be found in the ways the sheltered seminary students judge the sex workers, the way Bale’s age and gender makes him an authority even as his nationality makes him a childish dupe, or the way different people react to a Chinese collaborator who’s only trying to save his daughter. But the larger politics are drawn with painfully broad lines, and an emphasis on emotional suffering. The story (adapted from Yan Geling’s novel) leans heavily on sentiment and outrage, with endless scenes of girls weeping hysterically as they contemplate their fate, fight would-be rapists, nurse a dying soldier, or plan group suicide. Director Zhang Yimou brings in his usual eye for rich cinematography (recently seen in the glowing Hero and House Of Flying Daggers) and strong, deeply felt performances (felt more in his early days, in the likes of Raise The Red Lantern and Ju Dou). But he also wallows in histrionics, most notably during the last hour of the film, which the characters spend in anguish, anticipating an unavoidable atrocity. Many of Flowers’ individual performances and scenes are striking and masterful, but taken as a whole, it’s less a film than a rallying cry of “Our people feel more deeply than yours.”