Review: THE FLOWERS OF WAR 金陵十三釵 (2011) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Review: THE FLOWERS OF WAR 金陵十三釵 (2011)


As one of the most anticipated Chinese movie blockbusters of the year, Zhang Yimou's THE FLOWERS OF WAR has been generated a lot of buzz lately. This is the first major Chinese movie that feature an Oscar-winning Hollywood star (Christian Bale, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2010's THE FIGHTER), earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language film, as well as being China's official entry for the upcoming 84th Academy Awards. If that's not enough, THE FLOWERS OF WAR is also the most expensive movie ever made in China at a whopping budget of more than $94 million to make (a huge sum equivalent to an average Hollywood blockbuster movie). Now here lies the biggest question: Does the movie lives up to its massive hype? I have to say THE FLOWERS OF WAR is an entertaining crowd-pleaser that make good use of its huge budget in staging some of the most exciting set pieces and top-notch production values you've ever seen this year. It's a pity the movie stumbles from Liu Heng's heavily melodramatic screenplay (which is based on a novel by Geling Yan's 13 Flowers of Nanjing) and some questionable direction by Zhang Yimou.

Set during the chaotic Second Japanese-Sino War in Nanjing, the movie opens with an unkempt American mortician named John Miller (Bale) trying to dodge bullets and bayonets en route to a local Catholic church in which he is to be paid to prepare for a burial of a dead priest. Upon arrival he finds himself trapped with a group of convent girl students and a male student named George (Huang Tianyuan). Not only that, he also discovers a group of prostitutes, lead by the beautifully seductive Yu Mo (Ni Ni), who all happen to seek refuge in the church as well.

Yu Mo, who is particularly fluent in English, uses her beauty to seduce Miller in hope to convince him for helping her and the rest of the prostitutes to get out of Nanjing. Then things get out of hand when a band of Japanese army invades the church and begins to assault brutally whichever female encounters they come across. Miller ends up wearing the robes of a dead priest in attempt to save himself as well as the convent girl students and the prostitutes.

Enter Commander Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), a soft-spoken and high-ranking officer with a more civilized attitude and particularly loves music very much. At one point after he admires the convent girl students' harmonious choir, he quickly arranges an invitation for them to sing at a "party" for his superior officers. That "party" of course is destined to be an impending doom for the convent girl students. With nowhere to escape, Yu Mo comes up with a plan to fool the Japanese army by volunteering herself as well as the rest of the prostitutes to disguise as the convent girl students, with the help of makeup by Miller.

As mentioned earlier, the technical standpoint is impressive enough to hold your attention. The opening war scene between a group of suicidal Chinese soldiers and the Japanese army is worth the price of admission alone, which is punctuated by Zhang's trademark of slow-motion violence. Other noteworthy scenes -- the one-man suicidal battle between a lone officer named Major Li (Tong Dawei) against a group of Japanese soldiers, and the attempted escape between two prostitutes and pursuing Japanese soldiers which subsequently lead to unflinchingly brutal outcome -- are among the movie's highlights. While some might argue that Zhang is being a show-off, there's no doubt his meticulous visual flair (with the help of Zhao Xiaoding's beautifully lurid cinematography) is simply difficult to ignore.

The cast, in the meantime, is a mixed result. While Christian Bale does delivers a highly-spirited performance as John Miller, his acting role is somewhat awkward especially his sudden transformation from an irresponsible drunken mortician to a concerned wannabe priest and savior feels rushed and strangely unconvincing. However, supporting actors fare exceptionally well in their respective roles. Among notable newcomers are Ni Ni, who is stunning with a star-making performance as the lead prostitute Yu Mo, while Huang Tianyuan is equally captivating as George. It's a shame that Liu Heng's adapted screenplay doesn't offer much long-lasting impact to its supposedly emotionally-gripping storyline. Instead everything here feels mawkishly sentimental and soap opera-ish. There are times the movie feels sluggish in places, particularly during its lackluster climactic finale.

THE FLOWERS OF WAR is hardly qualifies as Zhang Yimou's best, but remains noteworthy enough to check out for.

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