Inarguably the best stylist of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yimou has directed gorgeously colour-coded potboilers (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern), opulent historical spectacles (Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower) and grit-flecked neo-realistic parables (The Story of Qiu Ju, Not One Less). He’s never tried to balance all three in one film, however, and this overstuffed movie, set during the Second Japanese-Sino War’s Rape of Nanking-tragedy, suggests that he’d be better off sticking to one mode at a time. As that reign of terror begins, a US mortician (Christian Bale) dodges bullets and bayonets on the way to a local church. Sharing this holy sanctuary with orphaned schoolgirls and a baker’s dozen of dolled-up prostitutes on the lam, the Yankee simply guzzles too much blood of Christ and hits on the lead concubine (Ni Ni). His conscience will eventually awaken, as we know it must; sacrifices will be made, and heroic deeds done.
Essentially a 1940s melodrama laden with modern representations of brutality, The Flowers of War does put its star’s characteristic intensity to good use. (Having played a youth suffering at the hands of WWII Japanese soldiers in Empire of the Sun, Bale’s presence as resident protector here makes this an unintentional answer film.) But Zhang’s mixture of unsparing violence, mawkish sentimentality and garish flourishes creates one uncomfortable aesthetic. After watching gut-wrenching explosions throw brightly hued garments into the sky, and near-rapes occur against stained-glass sunbursts, you wonder whether such floral, questionably flamboyant images are underwriting war’s horrors or the other way around.