Sunday, January 22, 2012

Zhang Yimou: The Flowers of War

Christian Bale, Ni Ni, The Flowers of War, Row 1 Releasing, 2012.

With all the shades of a forgotten technicolor tinderbox, The Flowers of War glides across the canvas in a diaphanous smear. Retelling the rape of Nanking, Zhang goes for the melodramatic jugular; his homage to Mizoguchi is resplendent, if discordant. At once a commentary on Hollywood films about "foreign" lands starring caucasian leads, and a treatise on his country's artistic and feudal past, the film is mostly stunning.

Christian Bale fills in for the Hestons and Lancasters of yesteryear, and delivers a stunning turn which slowly sinks in in its many intricacies. His drunken mortician, who shows up at a Catholic church amid the rubble of the Japanese invasion, finds retribution in protecting a ragtag group of schoolgirls and prostitutes. This slow building of motif, until the deliverance of the climax, works in favor of the themes which have fixated Zhang throughout his career; femininity and its recourse to masculine power, all-encompassing government (however shrouded), and ultimately, freedom through survival or death.

The narrative cascades in old-fashioned strokes reminiscent of John Ford; in fact, the master's penultimate picture, 7 Women, definitely came to mind. The epic feeling is counterbalanced by the intimacy of the acting; the entire ensemble is top-flight, headed by Bale and the luminous Ni Ni as the head of the courtesans. Xiaoding Zhao's camerawork is magic as always; his utilization of stained glass as the portal of their world is astonishingly original. Quigang Chen's music score is lush and romantic, definitely inspired by James Horner at his most tragically eloquent.

Even though it recalls memories of a superior film on the same subject (City of Life and Death), Zhang's picture suceeds at what the Chinese master does best: spin a cinematic web woven of yesterday and tomorrow.

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