Orphans of the Storm
Exhibiting the deleterious effects of movies not necessarily from California but nevertheless reflecting Hollywood soupiness for the heartstrings, The Flowers of War is embarrassing Yimou Zhang. Alleged the most extensive production out of China, this “based on a true story” is written by Heng Liu and Geling Yan from the latter’s novel. Fiction arising in, mirroring but distinct from, truth as we conceive it, page and screen are freed to play fast and loose with hard data and reality.
Asian and pre-Allied involvement and consequently ignored in the West, “the rape of Nanking” is to this day denied or played down as “incident” by Tokyo and has come slightly to world attention just recently, and that on the screen. For historical background, refer to our reviews of interviews-and-stage-readings 2007 Nanking and, focused on the Oskar Schindler-like person in that film, 2010 John Rabe.
Another, 2008 narrative The Children of Huang Shi is closer in spirit and flaws to FW -- war, orphaned children, sacrifice, an outsider hero British or American, and romantic love truncated for a higher good. The “flowers” of Zhang’s oxymoronic title can refer, in both, to the youngsters bereft of biological parents as well as to the blossoming of selflessness.
In this film, the unstoppable invaders are destroyers, killers and rapists -- their later psychological and physical trauma horribly informs Kôji Wakamatsu’s 2010 Caterpillar -- under a would-be humane Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe) who loves music but cannot disobey inhuman orders from above. Undermanned defenders give their lives, and, the last to go, their Major Li (Dawei Tong) is a one-man wrecking crew with Natty Bumppo marksmanship.
Stumbling through the carnage, ghostly in white flour, is John Miller (a hammy Christian Bale), lapsed Catholic, drinker by profession and mortician by trade (the tricks of which will be woven in). Headed for refuge inside church precincts to prepare the body of deceased Father Ingleman, he passes terrified middle schoolgirls, among them sometimes narrator Shu (Xinyi Zhang), whose collaborator father Mr. Meng (Kefan Cao) has failed to get them out.
The priest dead, young George Chen (Tianyuan Huang) is in charge. Burial is impossible, but John demands payment and appropriates the man of God’s quarters and searches for sacramental wine. Soon fourteen gaudy women climb in over the walls when George refuses them entry. Brassy Qin Huai River Paradise house prostitutes, they set up house in the trap-door cellar, lord it over everyone else, stoke the aversion of the uniformed thirteen-year-old girls, and set unofficial leader Yu Mo (Ni Ni, like Zhang and Tianyuan in her first film) to seduce John into spiriting them out of harm’s way.
Amidst escapes that believers could classify as miracles, soprano choral music, views (replacing earlier ones in Nationalist crosshairs) through or framing halo-light from a broken renewed rose window as bright as the ladies’ cheongsams, the bearded Caucasian transfigures into sober, clean-shaven priest-father-savior. Over a dying boy soldier, the hard whores with hearts of gold who lost their virginity at fourteen recognize their own innocent purity in the girls, who in turn find older sisters-saviors in the women (who in a jarring sequence sing and chorus-line their brothel hymn). George repays the years’ kindness since he arrived as a six-year-old orphan, and Shu’s father, too, is redeemed in sacrifice.
Giving up oneself, or one’s happiness with a loved one, is the order of the day. Tears flow even as stoicism triumphs. This “story of humanity, with a woman’s point of view”-- though Shu’s later, adult voice is heard so infrequently as to be forgotten -- would examine, not war, but people’s reactions to danger through “personal change” and growth. Aimed at broad international appeal, however, FW follows in a line of similar unexceptional inspiring fare.
(Released by Wrekin Hill Entertainment and rated “R” by MPAA.)