No better sign that Zhang Yimou is now China's official regime director than this exquisitely ornate yet soullessly formulaic old-fashioned war melodrama that seems custom-tailored to show Chinese filmmaking can be as lush and as crowd-pleasing as Western cinema. Mr. Zhang's luxuriant, stylized formalism is put to good use in this story set in 1930s Nanking, where selfish American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale), caught in the city during the Sino-Japanese war, ends up becoming the only shot at salvation for a dozen Catholic schoolgirls and a dozen sophisticated prostitutes taking refuge in a cathedral. The director uses every moody, lush trick he's learned in his previous work to bring to life the time-honoured dichotomy of war and love, destruction and hope, done with the utmost care and not without the occasional inspired moment.

     But as often as not, that attention to detail only highlights how The Flowers of War is a somewhat bewildering throwback to a certain type of film that has gone out of vogue about 50 years ago. The game cast does its best with what they're handed out, but what they're handed out is so archetypal as to be borderline ridiculous in its straight-faced, admirably naïve commitment to the war story rulebook. The absolute sincerity with which everything is presented cannot be easily dismissed, it's true, and Mr. Zhang still has quite a way with a camera. But you do feel that The Flowers of War is a film out of time that conforms to an image of the prestige blockbuster that has long gone out of fashion.

Starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni; Zhang Xinyi, Huang Tianyuang, Han Xiting, Zhang Doudou, Tong Dawei, Cao Kefan; Atsuro Watabe; Takashi Yamanaka, Shigeo Kobayashi; Paul Schneider

Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Liu Heng, Yan Geling, from the novel by Ms. Yan, The 13 Flowers of Nanjing
Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding (colour, widescreen)
Music: Qigang Chen
Designer: Yohei Tanada
Costumes: William Chang Suk-Ping, Graciela Mazón
Editor: Meng Peicong
Producer: Zhang Weiping (Beijing New Pictures Film Corporation)
China, 2011, 140 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon screening room, Lisbon, July 24th 2012


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