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Flowers of War, The/Jin líng shí san chai

8/10

Stars: Christian Bale, Atsuro Watabe, Han Xiting, Huang Tianyuan, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi

Director: Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou’s “inspired by true events” drama, based on the novel by Gelin Yang) is set in Nanking during the appalling horrors of the second Japanese invasion of China in 1937, claims to be the most expensive Chinese film to date and it certainly looks it. The action sequences of war-torn Nanking are every bit as effective as anything Spielberg has ever done and a tad less self consciously auteuristic.

Bale (a million miles away from his iconic rubber-suited Batman role) gives a powerful and convincing performance as an American mortician who miraculously escapes the pursuing Japanese in the ruins of Nanking and takes refuge in the church where he has been summoned to prepare a murdered Catholic priest for burial. (Later, cutting hair and applying makeup to change young girls into young men to escape the murderous invaders, Bale’s experience as an undertaker proves particularly effective).

Before that tense climax, however, Bale assumes the identity of a Catholic priest and, improbably perhaps, but logically and believably expressed by Zhang and his cast, Bale eventually helps save the terrified convent girls and a group of prostitutes who have taken refuge in the church, from the Japanese invaders…

Bale, in his second role as a victim of Japanese oppression after paying the young prisoner in 1987’s Empire of the Sun, strikes all the right notes: his conversion from opportunist to accidental hero is both moving and credible. Not for one moment does he give the impression – as so many other ‘foreign’ actors have done – of being an imported star added to an indigenous film for hoped-for international appeal. He is the key player here – which is not to denigrate a gallery of fine performances in support.

In the final analysis, Former cinematographer Zhang, director of such Chinese classics as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, has made a visually stunning epic whose large scale action sequences are beautifully integrated with moving intimate drama.

Alan Frank

China/Hong Kong 2011. UK Distributor: Revolver Entertainment. Colour.
142 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 05 Aug 2012