There is a scene early on in Zhang Yimou's 'The Flowers of War,' where Christian Bale's character, John Miller, wakes in a church as it is being raided by Japanese soldiers. A seemingly selfish and fairly unlikeable man, Miller at first attempts to hide -- that is, until he hears a group of schoolchildren cry for help. In an instant, the character is forced to make a decision, one that will reverberate throughout the rest of the film. Almost on instinct alone, he makes his choice, and doesn't look back. A stirring, devastatingly beautiful rumination on man's paradoxical cruelty and limitless compassion, the film presents a powerful story full of hope and despair. Led by Yimou's striking visuals and a strong performance from Christian Bale, the movie overcomes a few minor flaws to leave a lasting impression that is as inspiring as it is disturbing.
Based on the novel '13 Flowers of Nanjing' written by Geling Yan, the film takes place in 1937 during the Nanjing Massacre. As Japanese soldiers raid the Chinese city, a self-centered American mortician, John Miller (Christian Bale), finds refuge in a local church where he is hired to bury a recently deceased priest. Also staying in the sanctuary are a group of female schoolchildren and a gang of beautiful courtesans who invade the cathedral when they have nowhere else to go. At first the unlikely mishmash of personalities clash, but as the common threat of enemy soldiers bears down upon them, the group starts to bond together. When the children are faced with an unspeakable danger, Miller and the prostitutes must ultimately decide whether to leave them to their fate, or risk everything to keep them safe.
Disturbing, but ultimately inspirational, the film presents an emotionally charged examination of heroism in the face of tragedy. There are some truly hard to watch sequences throughout the runtime, with fairly graphic violence and truly unsettling depictions of rape and brutality, but these aspects are never sensationalized. The horrors of the massacre are all used to convey deeper themes of compassion and sacrifice, revealing the full spectrum of humanity's potential -- both good and bad. While the movie can be emotionally draining, the drama never becomes overly sentimental or maudlin, and instead the picture carries a heartfelt, moving, and utterly devastating impact. Even with its nearly two and a half hour running time, the film never drags, and Yimou creates a steady, evenly paced rhythm. With that said, certain aspects of the plot can feel artificial, and the climax presents a rather convenient dilemma that seems tailor-made for the specific characters and situation. In their defense, these aspects do cultivate a certain parable quality within the story that enriches the narrative's thematic concepts and subtext with allegory and symbolism.
Known for his methodically paced, beautifully shot dramas ('Raise the Red Lantern,') and breathtaking wuxia films ('Hero,' 'House of Flying Daggers'), 'The Flowers of Wars' presents a slight departure for director Zhang Yimou, and in many ways becomes his most ambitious project. Blending a chaotic, visceral war film aesthetic with his trademark cinematic elegance, the movie features an impressive visual style that oscillates between intricately planned disorder and hypnotic, painterly compositions. The battle scenes all feel raw and aggressive with shaky camera movements and dramatic slow motion shots. There is a palpable sense of tension, and the director does not shy away from the very gruesome realities of war, presenting an unflinching depiction of combat. One seemingly long, uninterrupted take that follows two women as they are chased by enemy soldiers is particularly powerful, and is sure to leave an impression. In sharp contrast, the sequences set in the church are much more tranquil in their rhythm and painterly in their use of lighting and camera movement. Yimou's use of color is astounding, and the church's stained-glass windows create a breathtaking visual motif that bathes the screen in rich hues. The two opposing styles are organically fused, and there are times when aspects of each invade the other, bringing the chaos of the battlefield into the church. Brilliantly shot and staged, the director presents a commanding vision that is expertly realized on the screen.
Christian Bale turns in a very strong performance as the unlikely hero, John Miller. At first the character is nothing more than a selfish rogue out to satisfy his own interests, but the man goes through a startling transformation. At its core, Miller's arc presents nothing new (fiction is littered with similar bad to good guy tales) but the execution is quite inspiring. The character's on-screen call to action is rousing and truly affecting, and it's clear that once he makes his choice, there is no going back. As different as Miller becomes, Bale manages to sneak in little bits of his original happy-go-lucky scoundrel persona, reminding us how far he has come. Though some of her English line readings are understandably awkward, first time actress, Ni Ni, is perfect as Yu Mo, the unspoken leader of the courtesans. Strikingly beautiful, the actress carries an alluring screen presence and handles the fragile emotions of her character well. The rest of the ensemble who make up the prostitutes and schoolchildren are similarly strong in their roles. For a group of inexperienced performers, they really do a fantastic job, and after seeing all they went through in the special features, one has to applaud their fortitude. In the end, it is the courtesans, not Bale, who truly rise up as the film's real champions, and the actresses make their on-screen sacrifice heartbreaking to watch.
The film deals with a particularly dark period in Japanese history and as such there are certain aspects of the production that might prove controversial. Due to my limited knowledge of this particular event, I'm in no real position to dissect the accuracy of the filmmakers' approach, but the narrative does contain some potentially provocative content. For the most part, the Japanese soldiers in the story are depicted as nothing more than mindless deviants. Some attempts are made to humanize one particular officer, but the overall portrayal lacks any semblance of humanity. This wholly one-sided approach could rub some viewers the wrong way, and there are times when I was quite troubled by it myself. With that said, the appalling horrors that occurred during the Nanjing Massacre solemnly speak for themselves, and to be honest… how can one humanize those responsible for such an atrocity? The film's goal is not to vilify all Japanese citizens, but merely to shed light on a particularly horrible event that occurred. It's my understanding that crimes like those depicted in the movie did happen, and an attempt to force any kind of sympathy for the perpetrators would have been ill-conceived. It's a very sensitive issue, and I'm not really sure that there's an easy solution that would satisfy all viewers.
A man hears children cry for help, and can't look away, can't turn his back on them. At its core, that's all a hero really is. Someone who can't turn their back on injustice. Even in the face of unspeakable horror, compassion and kindness find a way to grow. A moving reflection on self-sacrifice and heroism, 'The Flowers of War' is a truly powerful piece of filmmaking. By blending visual beauty and chaos, the director forms a narrative thread that is both realistic and allegorical. The film received very little attention when released theatrically last year, but hopefully it will find a larger audience on Blu-ray. Grand, operatic, brutal and intimate all at once, the movie is a classically structured war drama that grabs hold and doesn't let go, even after the screen fades to black.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate brings 'The Flowers of War' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc housed in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A compatible.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC transfer in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Featuring striking visuals that blend visceral battlefield sequences with elegant compositions, the film looks fantastic on Blu-ray.
Shot with a mixture of film and digital cameras, the source is in pristine shape with a light to moderate layer of grain visible. After a very hazy opening sequence, clarity perks up considerably, leading to a sharp image with intricate fine details. Various, tiny patterns in objects and wardrobe choices are clearly visible, revealing the filmmakers' painstakingly thorough production designs. The dirty, battle-weary facial features and tattered uniforms of the Chinese and Japanese soldiers come through with arresting precision, juxtaposing nicely against the graceful, beautiful courtesans. The film features a heavily stylized appearance that offers different color schemes depending on the sequence. Many scenes are glazed over in a yellow hue, and others are affected to heighten the chaos of war. This leads to a slightly uneven experience, but the majority of the picture offers splashes of absolutely dazzling color. The vivid cheongsam dresses that the actresses wear simply pop from the screen, and the director repeatedly integrates the church's stained-glass windows into his lighting design to create many stirring compositions bathed in rich colors. Contrast is high with bright whites and inky blacks. Noise and other artifacts are thankfully absent.
Zhang Yimou's films are known for their gorgeous cinematography, and 'The Flowers of War' is no different. While some sequences are less impressive than others, the chosen aesthetic always suits the material well. At its best, the picture can be truly mesmerizing.
The audio is presented in a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track with a mixture of English and Mandarin dialogue. English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are also included. It should be noted that while the subtitles are not hardcoded onto the image, I was unable to completely deactivate them. Even when I turned them off in the menu, English subtitles remained on the screen. Engrossing, nuanced, and absolutely room shaking when it needs to be, this mix is simply phenomenal.
Whether in English of Mandarin, speech remains crisp and distortion free throughout. With that said, characters will often speak in whispers and quiet tones, and there are some instances where dialogue is mixed just a tad too low for my tastes. During battlefield sequences, the soundstage is wide, spacious and aggressive. Piercing bullets, explosions, moody wind, hurried footsteps, and scattering debris blast from all sides. Each effect comes through with distinct clarity, precise directionality, and smooth imaging around the entire soundfield. The war sequences create a truly enveloping and downright assaulting experience with deep, full-bodied, thunderous bass activity. You really feel the kick and jolt of every gunshot and explosion. Appropriately chaotic, but still intricately designed, the track finds artistic cohesion in auditory madness. Outside of the forceful combat scenes, the film completely shifts gears, offering a much more subtle and deceptively simple sonic experience. Scenes set in the church are quiet and nuanced, and while the sanctuary provides sporadic safety from outside dangers, one can still hear the faint sound of nearby gunfire and artillery blasts echoing in the distance. Isolated effects like shattering glass feature pristine fidelity and dynamic range offers a complete gamut of clean lows and highs.
Home to several truly demo worthy sequences, 'The Flowers of War' comes to Blu-ray with a five-star audio mix. Offering booming combat sequences and delicately immersive dramatic scenes, the track provides the best of both worlds, and does it all with artistry and technical proficiency.
Lionsgate has only included one main supplement, but it's a real doozy. A five part, feature length documentary on the film's production is provided, offering a fascinating peek into the director's process with tons of candid behind-the-scenes footage. Each part is viewable separately (there is no "play all" option) and is presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (mostly in Mandarin) with hardcoded English subtitles.
'The Flowers of War' is a stirring, emotionally powerful film about sacrifice and compassion in the face of despair. Director Zhang Yimou constructs a visually beautiful, visceral experience that is both elegant and chaotic. Disturbing and heartfelt, the movie's drama is potent and inspirational. The video is exceptional, showcasing all of the impressive cinematography, and the audio mix is demo worthy with its aggressive kick and nuanced design. Though there is only one real supplement, the five-part documentary is comprehensive and fascinating, offering a raw, unfiltered look at the film's daunting production. The movie went by under the radar when it was released in select theaters last year, and deserves a lot more attention. Thankfully, this disc does the film justice with a strong technical presentation and a very interesting making of documentary. Recommended.