The Flowers of War Directed by: Yimou Zhang Cast: Christian Bale, Tony Dagwei Running Time: 2 hrs 25 mins Rating: R Release Date: January 20, 2012
PLOT: An American mortician (Bale) staying in China in 1937 pretends to be a priest in order to help orphans, who are holed up at a church, escape tumultuous Nanking.
WHO'S IT FOR?: Fans of Bale will find this to be another compelling performance from the now-Oscar winner. As far as war movies go, this is the type that wears its bleeding heart on its sleeve, and then dabs with a tearful tissue. If you're looking for a less somber depiction of war, stick with Spielberg's War Horse instead.
EXPECTATIONS: Making a Chinese movie after winning an Oscar doesn't seem like the usual victory lap, so as an admirer of Bale's, I was quite curious. What kind of character would he play in a movie not filmed in English, and what further awards potential could such a story have?
Christian Bale as John Miller: This is a complicated role that plays into Bale's advantages as an actor, which certainly shouldn't be taken for granted. In the vein of the character that got him his Oscar, Dicky from The Fighter, Bale makes the American Miller selfish and clumsy, but not a complete caricature. Bale is also able to choke on some tears while speaking with wide-eyed wonderment, something that he does here in a few instances. And similar to Bale's overall oeuvre, which shows the actor taking many shapes, Bale puts Miller through a complete transformation of an inner journey that stands as tangible from the start of the film to its end. Score: 7
Tony Dagwei as Major Li: As the brave Chinese combatant who also risks his life to defend those within the church, he's the patriotic perfect soldier in a story that eventually becomes all about the protection of civilians. Dagwei's scenes are brief but memorable, especially for his victorious moments of action that will inevitably have some people smiling with pride. Score: 6
TALKING: Characters have long weepy exchanges with one another, especially Bale who gets squeezed for what seems liked an overwhelming amount of tear-choking monologues. As the second act starts to make way for the third act, these moments in which everyone gets to say something and then cry about it, can weigh down the film and its running time. Score: 5
SIGHTS: Flowers of War receives a strong boost of beauty from its accomplished cinematography, which make the most out of the production's amazing large sets. The film can be consistently found making effective use of various camera movements, especially when it does something like crane up from the first floor of the church to the second. In the midst of the story's chaos, the film takes off on an amazing one-shot during a chase sequence, which follows characters up multiple floors, around many corners, and even into the water. (Also in the mournful spirit of Flowers, this sequence is concluded by a gruesome rape scene). Slow motion isn't heavily used by Flowers, but it's not outside of the film to use the slow speed effect in a near Hollywood-like fashion during a couple of dramatic moments, or whenever a bullet rips through a soldier's skull. Score: 7
SOUNDS: Violin solos by Joshua Bell add more crying oomph to weeping monologues. Eventually Bell's motifs melt into one another and become emotional mush. The film jolts audiences from its sad slumber with moments of loud war-focused sound design. Score: 5
BEST SCENE: The introduction of the movie, which shows a clumsy bearded Bale amidst realistic war imagery, gives an acute capsule of the entire film.
ENDING: The women, having one last moment of innocence, hop onto the truck and into an unknown yet vivid epilogue.
REWATCHABILITY: I'd give it a little more time before seeing it again. The film is so heavy overall that it's not the type of movie you can just snack on.
Certainly raising Flowers of War from its slightly over-dramatic prowess are its two best components - its beauty, and Bale. When both components aren't shoving their power in your face, they hit their mark. Bale is better when he's trying to blend in by sticking out with his character, and the heart of Flowers is most resonant when it's not the most obvious.
All main characters, including Bale's Miller, the prostitute he befriends, a young girl's traitor father, and a young boy who was adopted by a dead priest are given their melodramatic side stories. This gives Flowers of War its size, especially as the movie explores a hefty amount of themes that are tied neatly to times of war desperation (maturity, gender, the sacredness of youth, respect). Were it not for the script's ability to connect all of these aspects into plot-central events, this film would surely explode into a giant weeping mess. Instead, it just feels a bit bloated. It's like the occasionally powerful Flowers of War has a food baby from all the blood and tears it's trying to contain during its tall running time.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10