The Flowers of War (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Flowers of War (2011)

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It’s been a long few weeks.  I live in Ohio and, if you haven’t heard, the state was ravaged by a series of violent storms that left us without power for a few days.  My own power was off for a few days and I sweated through the heat but still lapsed into a rapturous mental decay where the sound of my kitty’s meowing was the most amusing thing in the world.  In hindsight, and if I had the capability, that delirium would have been the best and worst time to watch Zhang Yimou’s artistic failure, The Flowers of War.

Had I watched it in my delirious state I might have been able to go along with the violent mishmash of genres fighting for supremacy in the midst of the film’s dramatic interpretation Rape of Nanking.  This isn’t a bad state to be in, the first time I watched Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers I was running a fever of 103 and it was the perfect condition to watch that film.  But The Flowers of War would have hurtled my then delicate mental state into the midst of a beautifully photographed action comedy historical misery redemption drama with all the sense of self that description allows.

Then Christian Bale showed up in what appeared to be the host medium of an expatriate time-traveling Colonel Sanders.  It was then that I was certain if I had watched the film in my previous state it would have felt more like the product of a fever dream, and less a coherent vision.Zhang Yimou has enjoyed a nice spat of commercial and artistic success in China as well as here in the States.  I was urged on by the myth building beauty of Hero to seek out some of his earlier films like Raise the Red Lantern and have been a huge fan ever since.  However, in his last film, The Curse of the Golden Flower, that sense of balance and beauty gave way to overindulgence of color and spectacle that lost sight of the delicate family tragedy that was at the core of the film.  I was a bit less wordy back then and my immediate opinion when I got home was that the film basically vomited gold and cleavage with little regard to why ninja’s would be in ancient China.

That film, confounding details and aggressive color scheme aside, at least had a unifying vision even if the story and visuals did not always agree with each other.  This bit of cohesion did not pass along to  The Flowers of War and makes for the damndest viewing experience.  In addition to the extensive descriptors I’ve already ladled onto the film it also comes a nearly unkillable warrior angel,  some light hearted frivolity with an irresponsible drunk, and a musical sequence with its own small dream sequence packed in just in case anyone thought the film was missing anything.

A cursory glance at the plot doesn’t seem like it would be packed with so many ingredients.  John Miller (Christian Bale) is a perpetually drunk mortician who stumbles into the role of false priest and genuine protector of a cadre of young girls who have been recently orphaned.  Adding to his responsibilities as guardian is a group of prostitutes led by the Yo Mo (Ni Ni), who take up refuge in the church Miller and the girls are hiding.  It’s not long before the Japanese army find them and demand a special presentation from the young girls which, for those of you familiar with the travesties of the Rape of Nanking, bodes about as well as can be expected.The table is set for a sort of Chinese Schindler’s List but does not have the same kind of genuine cry of rage Spielberg’s film does.  Yimou is an artist of the same caliber, but tries to mix too many ingredients into the pot.  The result is gorgeous but confusing to the point of being nearly unwatchable.  In the same five minute span we see the warrior angel (Tong Dawei) taking out dozens of Japanese soldiers in an attempt to save the kids, along with Miller stumbling around drunk and almost blissfully ignorant of the murder literally at his feet, while children’s faces are bathed in the colors of the church’s stained glass in slow motion.  If you were to play this film for me as a separated series of shorts without providing any context, there is little chance I would be able to connect the scenes together in any meaningful way.

Yimou tries, and at its best The Flowers of War feels like a genuine attempt to bridge the cinematic worlds of the United States and China for the betterment of both.  But it still results in a number of odd detours, like the attempt at broad comedy with a strange rendition of a morbid “Who’s on first?” routine with a very confused cameo from Paul Schneider.  While thematically and dramatically muddled in presentation the individual moments are still absolutely beautiful, and I loved the way Yimou reflected the colors of the stained glass in the garb and attitude of the prostitutes, but it’s just not enough to hold the film together.

I would love to praise the film as a mad folley, but it’s really just a mess.  It was too great a challenge to mix so many ingredients in one overdone stew, and I hope next time he goes back to his rapturous, bold gestures.

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The Flowers of War (2011)

Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Screenplay by Liu Heng.
Starring Christian Bale and Ni Ni.

Posted by Andrew

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