Verdict: Stunning, moving epic

The flowers of war film

Flowers of War: Christian Bale stars as alcoholic mercenary mortician John Miller who finds himself in the wrong place

Here is the most ambitious and expensive film in Chinese history, shot over nearly six months by the country’s pre-eminent director — the man responsible for those impressive if impersonal Olympic ceremonies four years ago.

But China’s most celebrated auteur is a class act who can deliver more than well-drilled pageantry.

Zhang Yimou is a master of colour and atmosphere, and his best work includes Ju Dou, House Of Flying Daggers and (my favourite) To Live, the bravest of all indictments of Maoism and the cultural revolution.

With The Flowers Of War, Zhang Yimou is trying to escape the ghetto of foreign-language, art-house cinema and make a movie that millions around the world will pay to see.

It is transparently intended to be the Chinese Schindler’s List.

It tells the story of a mercenary, alcoholic mortician called John Miller (Christian Bale), who finds himself in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. The Japanese are invading Nanking in 1937, killing, looting and raping without mercy.

Miller has been hired to prepare a dead Catholic priest for his coffin, but when he reaches the church compound he finds a scared teenage boy (Huang Tianyuan) attempting to protect 12 young Chinese orphan girls.

To prevent Japanese troops from raping the children, Miller poses as a priest and starts the time-honoured movie transition from selfish scumbag to saintly saviour.

The story is complicated by two events. One is the arrival of terrified prostitutes, who seek sanctuary at the church but don’t find soul mates in the disapproving orphans. Miller is first carnally, then romantically, attracted to the ladies’ English-speaking leader (Ni Ni).

Another complication is the intervention of the Japanese commander (Atsuro Watabe), a seemingly civilised man who admires the orphans’ singing and orders them to perform for his fellow-officers.

But the behaviour of the Japanese troops suggests music is the last thing on their minds.

Anyone who expects a conventionally happy ending may do well to avoid this film, which has an even darker story to tell than Schindler’s List.

Zhang returns to a theme he first explored 25 years ago in his first film, Red Sorghum: the Japanese invasion of China.

Soldiers under fire in a scene from new Chinese movie epic Flowers of War, directed by the Danny Boyle of China – Zhang Yimou who directed the Beijing 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony

Clearly, he feels deeply about the brutality of war, and there is violence here as searingly memorable as anything in Saving Private Ryan. Zhang is also keen to show the kind of heroism that war often engenders. It’s a deliberate throwback to much earlier films than Spielberg’s.

Some scenes are reminiscent of Father Goose, in which Cary Grant, playing a drunken American expatriate on a South Sea  island, helped children to flee the invading Japanese.

I was even reminded of the Von Trapp family escaping the Nazis in The Sound Of Music. But if The Flowers Of War teeters on the edge of schmaltz, it’s never dull and always has plenty of heart.

Zhang’s central themes are selflessness and heroism, and he finds the good in characters that seem irredeemable. He even takes time to see the invasion through the  eyes of a Chinese businessman who collaborates with the Japanese.

There are mis-steps, and one is Zhang’s heavy-handed use of a heavenly choir on the soundtrack. Zhang has never shown any flair for humour, and his determination to pluck our heartstrings occasionally plunges into unintentional self-parody.

It’s the imagery that lifts this film to the status of art. When bullets shatter the stained-glass windows of the church, it’s not just visually stunning but an image that lodges itself inside your head.

The same goes for the blood-soaked strings of a Chinese lute; and Miller’s flair for make-up is an interesting metaphor for all kinds of things, from a sugar-coating of reality to a rediscovery of innocence, decency and civilisation.

Romance: Mortician John Miller is drawn to Yo Mo, the leader of the prostitutes, played by Chinese actress Ni Ni

Some will fault Zhang for using a white American as the central figure in his narrative. However, his previous films have told similar stories of suffering and heroism with Chinese actors, and they never found a large international audience. It makes good commercial and artistic sense to cast an excellent white actor as his protagonist.

Bale rewards him with a sincere, committed performance that unselfishly leaves room for his indigenous co-stars to shine.

Zhang has always been good at viewing events through female eyes, and that is the case again here. In Ni Ni, he has found a luminous young actress very much in the tradition of Zhang’s former leading lady, Gong Li.

Some have suggested this film is far-fetched, but that’s unfair. It isn’t, for the climactic act of heroic self-sacrifice genuinely happened.

Even the role of John Miller is based on real people. One is the missionary John Magee, who rescued 200,000 Chinese and smuggled films of the massacres to the West, revealing the atrocities that had taken place.

Another is Miner Searle Bates, a professor who helped many people to safety and saved several women from being raped. A third is female missionary Minnie Vautrin, who risked her own life to help students under her protection.

Until I saw this film, I knew nothing of their stories. Zhang Yimou has made an impressive epic that wears its heart unashamedly on its sleeve; and, as Syria turns into a similar kind of man-made hell on Earth, it is a good time to be reminded of the best in humanity

Read more: