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‘The Flowers of War’

By Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The Rape of Nanking, the 1937 rape and murder rampage by Japanese troops, comes so vividly to life in “The Flowers of War” that you wish the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou had a better movie to put in front of it. Japan, both officially and informally, has spent the intervening 74 years ignominiously denying that this mass slaughter of Chinese women and children in that city ever happened. A great historical film using it as a backdrop is overdue.

But while the filmmaker who gave us “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern” presents a visual epic of a city reduced to black rubble and grey ash, the cliche-riddled story of a cynical American (Christian Bale) ennobled by the task of rescuing helpless convent schoolgirls is an epic eye-roller.

Based on the Yan Geling novel, “Flowers” begins with the last gasps of the battle for the city. Civilians are fleeing and the heroic Major Li (Tong Dawei) leads his band of soldiers in a last-ditch effort to save them from the marauding Japanese. The combat scenes have the verve of an action film or a first-person shooter video game.

This is all too real. For every child Major Li saves with his sniper rifle, half a dozen others die.

The lucky few are students of a school at a Catholic church in the city, a refuge under Western protection. The priest has died, and the boy (Huang Tianyuan) in charge has summoned a mortician (Bale), who weaves through the combat zone waving an American flag handkerchief, showing off his Western beard, yelling “I am an American” at every Japanese patrol. After braving this, John Miller finds no corpse, no money to pay him, a dozen schoolgirls, a wrecked truck and a ready supply of wine.

The walled convent, however, is “safe.” And the fact that he’s a Westerner protects him. When a gang of gorgeous, overdressed prostitutes forces its way in, their leader Yu Mo (Ni Ni) sizes up the Yank.

“Your face is the way out of here,” she purrs. “If you help us, I will thank you in ways you cannot imagine!”

But John Miller, who is a lecherous drunk, isn’t biting.

The film has poignant, heart-tugging moments and dollops of low comedy mixed in with the graphic, unspeakable horror. “Sanctuary” meant nothing in a city overrun by out-of-control goons in uniform.

“We’ve got VIRGINS,” the soldiers bellow when they overrun the place. Finally, Miller is moved to act. Donning a clerical collar, he transforms into a righteous priest, “Father John,” a man who will do his utmost to save these women and girls.

The cliches pile on the floor like spent cartridges as we meet the refined, music-loving Japanese officer (Atsuro Watabe) who apologizes for his soldiers and is serenaded by the bloodied, shell-shocked school choir.

Characters act out of melodramatic impulses — risking life and limb over silly plot devices that send them out into the streets, heedlessly. Major Li’s exploits are straight out of the “Bruce Willis at war” playbook.

A good dramatization of this massacre could serve as a sobering slap to a Japan that still wants to see itself as a victim of World War II, not a racist, often barbaric antagonist. But “The Flowers of War,” veering from the sensational to the maudlin, is a compromised epic that panders to the Chinese audience. Zhang Yimou and his team seem to have absorbed Yu Mo’s line about what is happening to the victims, much to the film’s detriment: “Sometimes, the truth is the last thing we need to hear.”

———

THE FLOWERS OF WAR

2.5 stars

Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tianyuan Huang, Atsuro Watabe, Paul Schneider

Directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Liu Heng and Yan Geling, based on the novel by Yan Geling. A Row 1/Wrekin Hill release. Running time: 2:22

MPAA rating: R, for strong violence including a sexual assault, disturbing images and brief strong language

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