Zhang Yimou's plush, balletic take on the Rape of Nanking, starring Christian Bale, is a rather off-colour affair.
Danny Boyle may want to take a hard glance at the post-Olympic opening ceremony career of China's premiere, Fifth Generation stylist, Zhang Yimou, as, to put it bluntly, it's been mighty iffy.
Following his sporadically interesting screwball refit of the Coens' Blood Simple, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, there came Under the Hawthorn Tree, a balmy, literary romance yarn which Zhang went on to publicly denounce.
And now there's The Flowers of War, a prestige war picture that could have been very decent were it not for a couple major lapses in taste. The film takes place during the 1937 Massacre of Nanking by Japanese occupying forces, with Christian Bale playing a money-grabbing embalmer who's dodging bullets in order to put a recently deceased priest to rest.
In his life-endangering efforts to make a fast buck, he ends up trapped in a church which has been deemed a no-fired zone with a group of young convent girls and group of prostitutes. Swiftly, he casts off his amoral shackles and becomes protector to these damsels in distress.
Amid various intricately executed action set pieces, Bale has to bow to the demands of an apparently noble Japanese officer who doesn't know the exact amount of women being harboured. He finally has to decide who gets saved, and who is sent off into the potential jaws of death.
Bale is superb in the lead, transcending any language barrier issues though his subtle expressiveness and even making his on-a-dime character U-turn feel almost credible. And though you might accuse the script of too often descending into mawkish sentiment, Zhang clearly knows that this is sentimental material, and he runs with that. Which is fine.
However, what isn't fine, is the manner in which he has depicted the combat scenes. Apparently, the Rape of Nanking was akin to a bloody street ballet, an Olympic opening ceremony played out in real time. Grunts are mown down with heavy artillery and their entrails form abstract expressionist plumes and overlapping arcs in the air, dropped down into super slo-mo for all to enjoy.
One scene, in which a single Chinese soldier takes on an entire platoon of Japanese invaders, culminates in a huge explosion, in which the ensuing mushroom cloud is strewn with colourful fabrics. Imagine if the entire cast of Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death (a superior take on the same conflict) were all wearing pashminas, and you'll get the idea.
Of course, maybe that was how it happened and Zhang is being strict in his interpretation of historical fact. But the stress of each shot feels wrong. It's not the assassination of a young girl that's important, it's the way the bullet zips through a stain glass window to reach her. The title alludes to a precious beauty that grows during times of war, but this is just taking things way too far. The colour here is way off.