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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Whenever I find myself getting lost in conversations with other people about martial arts films one of the guys that always seems to get glossed over is Donnie Yen. He's just as good as the Bruce Lees, the Jackie Chans, the Jet Lis, and Tony Jaas out there, but for some reason he's just never really been able to click with the mainstream. Yen seemed to stick around wuxia films longer than the names you probably associate with these types of movies and extravagant wirework is usually the first thing to make an action film feel mediocre to me. People can't fly around, run on the tips of blades of grass, or kick people seventeen times in the air before landing on their feet and doing it all over again; the more realistic an action film is the more enjoyable it is to me. But ever since Hero (yes it's a wuxia film, but it's one of the exceptions), Donnie Yen has put out some really fantastic action films that are either more grounded or the wirework involved is a lot more subtle. Kill Zone and Flash Point were two of the films that made me love the guy's work and Ip Man is easily one of my favorite martial arts films of all time. Most Yen projects not only have spectacular action sequences, but have an engaging story to tell as well and that's something action films like this usually don't bother trying to do. Bodyguards and Assassins just tends to focus more on the dramatic side of things rather than just punch you in the face, kick you in the gut, and move on to the next action scene.
Bodyguards and Assassins is a bit misleading. It's marketed as this martial arts epic and it really isn't. It's actually incredibly similar to 13 Assassins in the way that nearly all of the action is in the last hour of the movie. Most of the movie is spent planning Sun Wen's arrival. The movie takes place during the early 1900s when plans were set into motion to try and overthrow the Qing Dynasty which had become corrupt. Sun Wen was the man believed to be the revolutionary and first step toward that goal. So while many Chinese are willing to step up to the cause and see China become a democracy, there are others who want China to remain the way it is; some want to protect him while many want to kill him. This movie is even more of a slow burn than 13 Assassins was. A man gets shot in the opening scene, there's a brief fight scene where more characters get killed, but the rest of the first hour of the film is very dialogue heavy that is sure to make action junkies itch for their fix.
The other misleading part of the film is Donnie Yen getting top billing. He does play a key supporting role, but is probably only around on-screen for thirty to forty minutes. His character is probably the most well-developed though. Yen is Sum Chang-Yang; a compulsive gambler who will do anything for money. His wife left him after their daughter was born because she didn't want to see their child have the same fate as her father. He's basically a lowlife the entire movie until he has the opportunity to make something of himself and finally gets to see his daughter up close. Then it's as if his entire life was spent waiting for this moment and he decides he shouldn't waste it. So while Yen does make the most of his screen time, he's secondary to the bigger issue at hand.
Bodyguards and Assassins falls victim to shaky camera techniques during a good portion of the fight scenes. The technique is probably used to make the viewer feel closer to the action, but it just doesn't work. It makes you miss more of the action rather than make you feel like you're a part of it. The other disappointment is that there is quite a lot of CG blood in the movie. Most of the blood that makes it to the ground is obviously made with practical effects, but all of it that flies into the air is computer generated. CG blood just gives a movie like this a cartoonish feel, when it's supposed to be taken seriously.
The last hour does have at least two scenes to try and make up for that wordy first hour. There's a chase scene that evolves into a fight scene involving Donnie Yen in the marketplace that is exactly what you've been craving since the movie began. It's probably Yen's crowning achievement in the movie. Leon Lai plays a beggar in the film named Liu Yubai who was outcast from his rich family after falling in love with his father's woman. He uses a metal fan when he fights and he's extremely skilled with it. His action scene is quite spectacular as well and it nearly trumps Yen's.
Bodyguards and Assassins is not a bad film by any means; it's very story driven, has an excellent cast, and delivers an incredibly powerful message. But labeling it solely as an action film seems really unfair. It's a historical drama featuring some action sequences. Impatient viewers may turn the film off before it really has the chance to take off while a shaky camera and CG blood does bring the movie down a notch or two, but there is light at the end of that tunnel for martial arts admirers. Donnie Yen fans may also be slightly disappointed once they realize Yen only has a supporting role. Nevertheless Bodyguards and Assassins is a riveting drama with an unbelievable climax that captures the look and feel of Hong Kong during the early 1900s in exquisite fashion.
The special features on the DVD are kind of weird, so bear with me. First up are five Making of featurettes. "The Characters" is about twenty one minutes long and gives a brief look at the characters The Revolutionary, The Tycoon, The Diva, The Fugitive, The Rickshawman, The Fiancee, The Heir, The Hawker, The Policeman, The Beggar, The Assassin, The Concubine, and The Gambler. Each actor and cast member bleeds not only enthusiasm for the project but passion, as well. You're treated to quite a bit of interesting information during this feature including the fact that the film was nearly ten years in the making. During The Gambler portion of the feature, you get an in-depth look at Donnie Yen's astounding marketplace fight scene that's a great watch. "The Set" is nearly three minutes long. The set was built from the ground up and took six months to build. It portrays Hong Kong during the early 1900s very realistically. "The Design" is just under two minutes long. It goes into detail concerning the extent of the costume designs including the police uniforms. Leon Lai also discusses how he crushed up bean curd with honey and smothered himself with it to try and be more in character. "The Make-Up" is a minute and a half long. We take a look at Nicholas Tse, Hu Jun, and Donnie Yen as they each tell their stories of sitting in the make up chair during production. Donnie Yen spent four hours putting on make-up and one hour taking it off every day. Hu Jun had prosthetics added to his forehead and nose to make his nose crooked. "The Action" is about four and a half minutes long. It briefly takes a look at the action director using storyboards for most of the action sequences before the feature recycles the same behind the scenes marketplace fight footage from "The Characters" featurette.
There are also four extended interviews totaling a little over ten minutes in length altogether. Leon Lai goes into detail about his beggar character while telling the story about he became part of the production. We're also shown behind the scenes footage of his action sequence being shot. Wang Xueqi portrayed Li Yu-Tang and discusses his first time working with a Taiwanese and Hong Kong cast. Tony Ka-Fai Leung played Chen Xiao-Bai and talks about portraying a revolutionary pushing 30 years old when he's well over 30 himself. Finally there's the producer Peter Chan who created the concept of the film ten years ago when the movie market was very different and wouldn't have been mature enough for a film like this. The DVD also contains the international trailer, as well.
The funky part comes in the form of a QR code on the DVD. You scan it with your android phone and it takes you to a website that's supposed to feature more bonus material. There's a mailing list you can sign up for that supposedly mails you a clue leading to a new reward in the form of bonus material. The only video on the site at the moment is Tony Ka-Fai Leung's two minute extended interview.
The Bodyguards and Assassins DVD is not rated, but is presented in Mandarin with English subtitles, is available in 5.1 Dolby Digital and English Stereo sound, and is presented in widescreen. It is approximately 139 minutes long and should be available in both retail stores and most online retailers now.
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