I'm really weird when it comes to war films. I have a fascination with both horror and extremely violent films in general, but tend to mostly not care for films that revolve around war. It's not that they're bad or unwatchable, but none of them have ever really made me think they're worth owning or watching again. Chinese and Japanese war epics seem to be a bit different as I adore films like The Last Samurai, Mongol, and The Warlords. The Flowers of War is in a similar vein as those three films yet is also incredibly different in comparison.
Yimou Zhang is a director that's pretty much made a name for himself as a director with his incredible use of color. Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower are all lush, vibrant, and just visually brilliant. The Flowers of War is almost completely devoid of color. The battlefield is littered with shades of brown and gray until someone is shot and blood sprays into the air or trickles to the ground. The only real use of color comes in the form of the round stained glass window and the elaborate dresses the prostitutes wear. This adds for some incredible and dynamic shots seeing warfare on their doorstep through a multicolored filter and broken glass. Two prostitutes eventually escape with the intent of returning, but there's this amazing one-take sequence of their attempt of coming back to the church and their colorful dresses play a big part. That scene along with a few others was slightly reminiscent of Children of Men.
The evolution of John Miller (Christian Bale) is something wonderful. When he first arrives to the church, he's money hungry, a drunk, and a womanizer. But being around the students at the church and the group of prostitutes brings out the best in him. That sounds awkward, but it makes sense after seeing the film. There are a few wandering shots that show Bale standing or sitting alone in the church. They're fairly brief, but those images stick with you. The Chinese soldier that drops off Pu Sheng and returns one of the studentís shoes is one to keep an eye on, as well. Without spoiling too much, his strategy is nothing short of amazing.
As you can probably imagine, The Flowers of War does touch upon some extremely vicious and barbaric acts that are difficult to watch. It is based on the Rape of Nanking after all. The sequences of violence are necessary, but aren't for those of you with weak stomachs. Children are stabbed and shot while prostitutes are raped and brutally murdered. Then there's all the bloodshed from the war going on. It's pretty intense, but the message the film offers makes it all worth it.
The Flowers of War is almost a war masterpiece, but there are several things that stand in the way of making it just that. The main one being that nearly every female character in the film will irritate the holy hell out of you for the entire two hour and twenty minute duration. Every prostitute but Mo (Ni Ni) has a voice that's the equivalent of scraping fingernails against a chalkboard, but there's a group of them so multiply that by twelve. Not only that, but they make stupid decisions. Risking your life for a cat or strings for your instrument seems kind of fruitless at this point, wouldn't you say? Then there's the group of students at the church that do nothing but cry, be spiteful towards the prostitutes, and hold grudges. Were they imperative to the story? Of course, but their stupid actions will only help you cheer for their deaths at the same time. There are also two musical numbers that feel out of place. Both are great concepts on paper, but they feel clumsy in their execution. And to be honest, I'm just glad the phrase, "No Mo," wasn't uttered at all in the film.
Despite featuring some of the most annoying and idiotic female characters of recent memory, The Flowers of War is an emotional journey with a heartfelt message. As John comes clean about a lie he told Mo earlier on in the film, Mo replies, "Sometimes the truth is the last thing we need to hear." That quote fits so perfectly with the tone of the film. Christian Bale delivers a spectacular performance as watching the evolution of John Miller through the duration of the film is nearly as great as the maneuver they pull off. Often brutal yet frequently beautiful, The Flowers of War is one of the few war films that is not only thoroughly enjoyable but is capable of maturing into one of the most selfless acts imaginable.
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