We'll Figure A Way Out
Between the nominees in the recently concluded 6th Asian Film Awards, I would have thought Taiwanese actor Ko Chen-tung was the shoo in for the Best Newcomer Award given his heartfelt performance in Giddens Ko's You Are The Apple of My Eye, but trust Chinese director Zhang Yimou to have unearthed yet another fine Chinese actress in Ni Ni, whose starring role in his Nanking war epic The Flowers of War have had the jury sit up and take notice, and given her the award instead. And having seen her in action, I dare say it is something truly deserved even though it was at best a support character rather than a leading one.
The lead is of course Christian Bale, starring in what would be his first Chinese production, and a major one at that, that both sides can claim a coup, one in having a major Hollywood star be at the centre of one of the most tumultuous times in Chinese history, and the other getting involved in a production that brings him back in touch with his Empire of the Sun days in telling a tale set during World War II. Nanking has always been at the centre of controversy for the Japanese's refusal to admit to the atrocities committed and to downplay the number of casualties involved, and this has led to numerous films from documentaries to Lu Chuan's excellent City of Life and Death to have dealt with the pain and suffering by the Chinese during the Japanese invasion and occupation thereafter.
The central character to Zhang Yimou's Nanking tale happens to be a young schoolgirl by the name of Shujuan (Zhang Xinyi), escaping from the soldiers who have come to occupy the city, and seeking refuge at their own church and convent school. She narrates the entire tale as seen through her eyes and experience, and naturally she, and her teenage friends, are targets of the soldiers in their lust, pillage and plunder. But the priest of her church had died, and in his place is a fellow teenage caretaker (Huang Tianyuan) entrusted to protect the schoolgirls, who would have been at wits end if not for the timely arrival of mortician John Miller (Bale), caught up in the city and refusing to leave unless being paid for his trip and unwanted services.
Hiding in the same convent happen to be a group of prostitutes from a famed brothel in Nanking, who were promised safe passage and a hiding place within the confines of the church since it's owned by Westerners, and this forces a faction of sorts to emerge amongst John, who sees impersonating a priest to his advantage, the group of working girls, and the convent girls who see the former group as immoral and undeserving to be sharing their hiding place and scarce resources. If anything, this also becomes John's story in keeping things harmonious amongst the groups, and finding it within himself to hold the key to everyone's survival as much as he can, given he's a foreigner and by and large having whatever little influence to keep the Japanese at bay, which is right outside the gated courtyard.
Nanking atrocities have been told countless of times through various mediums and through film, and Zhang had probably decided not to overdo, or overly place a focus on the atrocities committed by soldiers, which becomes tempting to focus on the plenty of blood, gore and of course the much talked about sexual violence against the womenfolk in the city, whatever their age. Rather it's a very distinct three separate acts he adopts that provided different focus each, and that had worked while keeping the narrative keenly on target to dwell on the titular characters. Since the tale started with the invasion of the city, Zhang Yimou sees opportunity in presenting a mini war action film, that deals with one small squad's, and then one Captain's, relentless fight against impossible odds to keep the convent girls safe from harm.
Then it became John's story-arc in his transformation from uncaring drunkard with his skirt-chasing ways, to a man finally woken to the harsh realities of war, and the atrocities that are being committed from right under his nose should he choose to be passive, stand around and watch, or better yet, escape when being presented a chance to do so. And knowing that their prolonged stay at the church isn't a long term plan, his responsibility laid in getting an unused truck working again for their collective escape, as well as to figure out a way to save the young girls from their summons to the Japanese Imperial Army HQ where a cruel, expected fate awaits, giving rise to the notion that there's no such thing as a free lunch / freedom, but a peace enjoyed that had to be repaid many times over. Bale got to exercise his Mandarin again, which is nothing new to the actor, although here his attempts were confined and limited to keywords rather than phrases, communicating with the schoolgirls, and Yu Mo (Ni Ni) the prettiest amongst the working girls, using English since they have been schooled in a convent.
The final focus boiled down to the hatching of an elaborate plot to trick the Japanese as well as to save the innocence of the convent girls. It's no surprise what came up at the end, and the pace takes on a deliberate slow spin in preparation, to provide for reconciliation and heroism to a certain degree, touching on sacrifice and the provision of a fighting chance for the new generation to overcome the obvious adversary faced. This singular event ties everything up together that some may find convenient, but I thought it developed in what would be the best possible manner without the need to sensationalize, and keeping things rather open-ended was probably the best since it would have mirrored the lack of information coming out from a city in lock down mode.
A love story tried to force its way into the narrative, but it proved to be a relatively non-event between Yu Mo and John Miller, with the more interesting scenes involving entire groups from both the prostitutes and the school girls being the most touching of the lot, each knowing what they're in for, yet preferring to look at the brighter side of things despite the doom and gloom hovering over the horizon. Those looking for plenty of war violence will also probably not find this film fulfilling since the focus was on a more human story told from the survivors' point of view as they spend each day, which was a bonus, living in fear and not knowing what was in store for them. It's also a pity that many of the girls and women in the film were reduced to mere glances save for a few vocal ones who have had their names mentioned, or Li Yuemin's Dou and Bai Xue's Lan getting a little bit more screen time for the ordeal they have to go through.
Unlike most Nanking films, Zhang Yimou's film, based upon the novel by Yan Geling, chooses to focus on what would be a great escape, and a singular primary challenge that everyone had to overcome through sheer wit with death as a possible outcome, that makes the film really moving when it broaches the theme about sacrifice. The director's works are commercial fare and accessible compared to his earlier works, and The Flowers of War prove to be no different in offering a big budgeted tale about one of humankind's darkest period in our history. A recommended must watch, although not in the same vein as City of Life and Death which had a more holistic view of the initial days of the Nanking invasion.