Thursday, January 12, 2012

Flowers of War (2011)

Let me get a few things out of the way at the top: If Flowers of War didn’t have both Christian Bale in it and the controversy he generated by pissing off the Chinese government, this film would have remained invisible to Oscar voters. It’s an often beautiful looking film that is wildly too long and has one of the weakest performances by Christian Bale you are likely to see. If it makes the short list of films there really is something wrong with the way the Oscar nominations are picked.

I should say it’s not a bad film, but on the other hand it’s not a particularly good one either. As representation of Chinese cinema from the year it’s in the middle of the pack and as for stacking up with other films that the Chinese have offered up to the great god Oscar it’s toward the bottom. Honestly I think the film was picked not because it was a good film, rather because the fact it has Bale and has a large amount of English dialog which gives it a shot at the winning over people who don’t like subtitles.

To put it another way it’s director Yimou Zhang’s weakest film of late. In all honesty the film pales in comparison to Yimou’s previous film, Under the Hawthorne Tree, which is an unashamed tear jerker (A review is coming in two weeks as part of out Chinese New Year series).

The film is structured as a memory tale. Told in flashback the film follows Christian Bale’s con man as he is fleeing from the Japanese who have descended upon Nanking. Hooking up with three young girls (one of whom is telling the story) in hiding, he makes his way to a church where the priest has died. Through circumstance he takes on the role of priest and has to defend the girls, and some women of questionable morals from the Japanese, and find a way out of the beleaguered city.

I was bored.

Worse, I didn’t care.

Despite the spectacle of the battle scenes the film looked as if it was done on the cheap. The sets didn’t feel like a real place, rather it seemed as if we were on soundstages or on street sets. I never felt as if I was in a real place. (You want to feel like you’re in a real place and real emotion see City of Life and Death)

But that’s not fatal, what was fatal was the story telling. The tale is split oddly in four different ways. We are kind of following the girls Bale meets early on, however they don’t seem to be given much to do other than observe or be afraid. We also follow the older women, who get more screen time (I’m guessing because they are sexier). Then there is Bale and his shift from man out for himself into a man of the cloth. Then added to all of this are the various fighting men, both Chinese and Japanese, we get odd side bar battle sequences which show how great the Chinese were and how bad the Japanese could be. The problem with the fragmentation is that the film feels kind of unfocused. Who is this about really?

For me the fragmentation results in a story that seems like they are trying to be a preachy soap opera. Its see the pretty images or See all of the bad things that happened? The film is too into dwelling in some of the depravity. A perfect case in point is when one of the girls is pitched over a balcony to her death. The camera seems to linger a bit too much (and too many times) on her smashed skull on the floor. I’ve seen many better films on Nanking and their stories had worse depictions of violence, but I never felt as though they were extraneous or done for effect. The crimes that were committed in those films curled my hair, these annoyed me.

To me Christian Bale is a very up and down actor. Oscar or no, he is either perfect or terribly miscast. I vote for him being miscast here. There is something about his demeanor that fails to sell the role. Sure he does the right things for his character, but he never seemed to be selling what he is doing. He seemed to be walking through things and not being there in the moment with the character.

The result of all of this is the films biggest flaw, the wild over length. Why is this film two and a half hours long? I don’t know. Sequences go on and on often pausing for a gloriously framed image or two, but rarely to add anything that is absolutely vital to the story. Give me a pair of scissors and I think I could trim this down by at least a half an hour with out losing anything.

Despite ripping the film apart I kind of do like it, I just wish it wasn’t being put forward as an Oscar contender, its not deserving of it. Give me a few minutes and I’ll give you five better Chinese films from 2011 (Better yet look at the 2011 films we’ll have for Chinese New Year). In fairness had the film not been touted, had it not been the source of controversy I might have liked it better. Honestly, give me six months and I’ll see it again. If it plays better I’ll report back.

For now it’s an okay film. It’s just okay. It’s nothing special. Worth a shot when it hits DVD but I can’t see paying the big bucks to see it in a theater.

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