Alternate Title: The Rapists of Nanking
One sentence synopsis: A drunken American mortician and a chinese prostitute try to save a group of schoolgirls during the Rape of Nanking.
Things Havoc liked: In 1937, the Japanese army destroyed the city of Nanking, then capital of China, with a thoroughness and a bestial cruelty unrivaled since the depredations of Genghis Khan. For eight weeks, the Japanese almost literally tore the city apart, slaughtering men, women, children, dogs, and every other living thing with indiscriminate cruelty, until fully half of the city's population (all who were unable to hide), had been exterminated. It was one of the worst atrocities of modern times, rivaling in intensity the worst incidents of the Holocaust, and is today all but forgotten in the annals of history.
Enter Zhang Yimou. One of China's most well known directors (at least in the West), Zhang has been responsible for some of the finest Chinese movies I've seen, including masterpieces such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, and the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic games. Yimou has a very distinctive style to many of his films, flowing landscape shots of stark color contrasts and dreamy, almost slow motion sequences, even in the midst of wire-fu action sequences. It's a weird pairing, I admit, but Yimou pulls way back on his stylization for this film, with only a few shots displaying his tendency towards over-symbolism.
The movie stars Christian Bale, who plays John Miller, an alcoholic undertaker called to a church in Nanking to bury the head priest. As it happens, this church is also the chosen refuge of two groups of girls, one of young schoolgirls, led by Shu (played by Zhang Xinyi), and another of high-class prostitutes from the city's red light district, led by Yu Mo (played by Ni Ni). Bale's character is based on several real people, westerners caught up in the hell of the fall of Nanking who tried to save whoever they could. Bale has certainly been in his share of bad films (Reign of Fire and Terminator Salvation come to mind), but here he's actually quite good, confronted as he is with one of the hardest character archetypes to play, the reforming drunk. More solid props should go to the other actors. Zhang Xinyi and Ni Ni both play their characters very well, in scenes that run the gamut from introspective to violent to terrified. Another very good performance is turned in by Tong Daiwei (whom I swore initially that I had seen somewhere before, but apparently had not), who plays Major Li, one of the last Chinese soldiers left in the city, and who provides the movie with its action hero, and is the catalyst for the (surprisingly few) fight sequences.
The film's pace is slow and effective, dwelling more on the potential terror of the character's surroundings than on the horrid atrocities themselves (though there are those). Conversations shift effortlessly from English to Chinese to Japanese, relying on the audience to simply keep up with who can understand what at any given point, and yet we never get lost. The chromatic choices are overwhelmingly gray and muted, as befits the setting of a ruined city being torn apart, but Zhang's trademark flashes of intense color pop up periodically, lending a somewhat dreamlike quality to many scenes. The writing overall, despite dipping into fairly well-trod territory ("you can overcome your drinking by finding faith!") never gets schmaltzy (something helped, I find, by the subtitles), and holds the drama together quite well.
Things Havoc disliked: On occasion, Zhang's addiction to cinematic prettiness gets the better of him. There are several shots (such as Bale unfurling the red cross flag) that strike a grating tone, due to sheer pretentiousness. One can almost feel the director screaming in the background "wait 'till they get a load of this sweep-shot I've got planned'. Similarly, a couple lines sound pretty forced, at least in English, though nothing continuous enough to get super-annoying.
The movie is also very long, nearly two and a half hours, and admittedly, it feels it. While the movie's pace doesn't drag too badly, it does get pretty slow towards the end of the film, when we already know how the plot is going to resolve itself as the movie takes the time to explain it to us five or six times. At that point, we're simply waiting for the plot to turn out the way we know it will. Finally, there's quite a few cases of some of the girls doing things so galactically foolish (I need to get my cat!) as to strain belief, solely for the purposes of producing tension (or atrocity).
Final thoughts: I really shouldn't keep doing this, I know, but this is yet another movie that I liked quite a bit which was more or less excoriated by the critics at large. With movies like Suckerpunch, I can see why this happens, as I am able to identify that there are movies that are objectively bad which I will like. But a movie like this, made with care and craft by an award-winning director and starring actors who give honest and even moving performances, I cannot help but conclude that there is something wrong.
And then, of course, I read the reviews, and found gems like this:
One of the ancient ploys of the film industry is to make a film about non-white people and find a way, however convoluted, to tell it from the point of view of a white character. "The Help" (2011) is a recent example: The film is essentially about how poor, hard-working black maids in Mississippi empowered a young white woman to write a best-seller about them. "Glory" (1900) is about a Civil War regiment of black soldiers; the story is seen through the eyes of their white commander.
Now let me ask you: Can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell his story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?
The entirety of Roger Ebert's review of this film is comprised of the above sentiment. It was the sole reason cited for him giving it a lower score than Red Tails.
I have two replies to this.
One, this movie is, amazingly enough, based on a series of historical events, surrounding real people who acted in this way. I stated above that half of the population of Nanking died in the Rape. Almost the entirety of the other half were saved by taking refuge at the international safety zone established by a handful of westerners of all nationalities and stripes who happened to live in the city for one reason or another. These men and women were led by (of all people) a Nazi named John Rabe, and contrived to save hundreds of thousands of civilians from the Japanese by a variety of methods.
Obviously this film is not specifically about John Rabe, but the point is that Westerners were deeply involved in the survival of most of the city of Nanking. Replacing the actual American priest who did these things with a Chinese priest would be to distort history in the name of political correctness, changing events that actually happened because they do not suit your modern political agenda. I would be no less scandalized if they had recast the Japanese soldiers as white (or for that matter, black) to avoid demonizing Asians. The fact that a Westerner could do things and move about in the city more freely than a Chinese person could (thanks to the Japanese being less willing to simply slaughter every westerner in sight) is a plot point of the goddamn movie, and the sole reason why the hero is able to make several important discoveries and decisions throughout it. Moreover, it is a simple fact that a Catholic cathedral in Nanking in 1937 would not have had a Chinese priest officiating over it, and casting one would be completely anachronistic. Or is the fact that Catholics had something to do with saving civilians in China also inconvenient for our sensibilities today?
Secondly, look again at who made this movie.
Zhang Yimou is one of the most important directors in China today. He has been accused of being both anti-authoritarian and pro-authoritarian at various points. He was chosen to choreograph the Beijing Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. He filmed this movie with a budget of more than $90,000,000 and was given carte blanche to cast any actors he wished or could acquire. His film was co-produced by William Kong, the famous Hong Kong producer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and other staples of wuxia cinema. I categorically refuse to believe that, given these circumstances, Zhang Yimou, one of the finest directors in mainland China whitewashed his own film.
Glory, The Help, and this movie all did have White characters as points of view (though in Glory it was one of about five). Glory, The Help, and this movie were all also excellent films, all three of which were based around true stories about real people, white and otherwise, who did the things they did. George Shaw, from Glory, existed. Making the film without him would have been an intolerable crime committed against the pages of history. Similarly, Westerners, and yes, western priests, were instrumental in saving hundreds of thousands of lives in Nanking. This happened. And to remove them from the story because you don't like that they were in it is as absurd as moving the setting of the movie to Chicago. This is literally the only complaint that Ebert (and some others) make about the film. He admits late in the review that "The Flowers of War" is in many ways a good film, as we expect from Zhang Yimou." He, and those like him, have fallen into that ultimate trap of criticism, wherein they are criticizing the movie not for what it is, but because it is not some other imagined movie that they would have preferred to see.
And to suggest that this artfully-crafted movie was inferior to the dreck that was Red Tails simply because that movie had no white characters in it, and this one did, is simply contemptible.
Final Score: 7/10