A dark knight rises to the oc­ca­sion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

MOR­TI­CIAN John Miller (Chris­tian Bale) ar­rives in Nan­jing to bury a Catholic pri­est just as in­vad­ing Ja­panese forces are lock­ing the city down. The Amer­i­can barely makes it alive to the con­vent where the late pri­est cared for or­phaned girls, and is im­me­di­ately dis­mayed to find no sur­viv­ing adults and no pos­si­ble pay­ment for his ef­forts. He takes to the bot­tle as a gag­gle of pros­ti­tutes led by Yu Mo (Ni Ni) scale the con­vent wall seek­ing sanc­tu­ary.

It re­quires a lot to in­spire the drunken, cyn­i­cal Miller to take a stand. But when Ja­panese sol­diers de­scend upon the church seek­ing to rape the teenage school­girls, he dresses up as a pri­est and at­tempts to pro­tect his ac­ci­den­tal charges.

Western movie pun­ters favour nat­u­ral­ism and verisimil­i­tude even in their Bat­men and fan­tasy fran­chises. Per­haps that’s why Zhang Yi­mou’s lush, melo­dra­matic treat­ment of the Rape of Nan­jing has not, out­side China, at­tracted the at­ten­tion or no­tices once ac­corded the same di­rec­tor’s in­ter­na­tional hits Raise the Red Lan­tern and House of Fly­ing Dag­gers.

Re­as­sur­ingly, the film-maker who emerged as part of the PRC’s Fifth Gen­er­a­tion is still ca­pa­ble of the grit dis­played in his 1990s so­cial re­al­ist films To Live and The Story of Qiu Ju. Ac­cord­ingly, The Flow­ers of War is pep­pered with scenes de­pict­ing the hor­rors of corpse-lined, oc­cu­pied streets and rape as mil­i­tary strat­egy.

Mostly, how­ever, the film plumps for spec­ta­cle and soap opera: shards of stained glass scat­ter art­fully in the shelling; an im­promptu sing- song takes on the guise of a Busby Berke­ley num­ber; bat­tle scenes marry Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan’s open­ing gam­bit to the bal­letic slow-mo­tion of John Woo ac­tion­ers. It can look tremen­dous, even if Zhao Xiaod­ing’s hy­per-stylised ’90-retro cin­e­matog­ra­phy sits un­easily be­side re­lent­less blood­shed and sex­ual vi­o­la­tions.

A prob­lem­atic script is equally hit and miss. Draw­ing from a novel by Gel­ing Yan ( 13 Flow­ers of Nan­jing), The Flow­ers of War is con­vo­luted, co­in­ci­dence-heavy and oc­ca­sion­ally down­right daft. How did a US ci­ti­zen get here? Why do the pros­ti­tutes al­ways look so pris­tine? Who thought that a soft-fo­cus sex scene would add to the film? Bale, that most ver­sa­tile of ac­tors, emotes ef­fec­tively but strug­gles with di­a­logue that screams 1980s TV minis­eries.

Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, the sen­sa­tional Ni Ni is the di­rec­tor’s lat­est muse, or “Mou Girl”. She pro­vides an­other in­con­gru­ously fab­u­lous flour­ish in an en­gag­ing, mud­dled his­tor­i­cal drama that can’t de­cide if it’s Come and See or “come hither”.

Re­luc­tant hero: Chris­tian Bale in the oth­er­wise all-Chi­nese su­per-pro­duc­tion The Flow­ers of War

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.