The Flowers of War is a very good historical drama about selflessness and bravery. Christian Bale stars as an American mortician brought to China during the Second Sino-Chinese War to bury the priest of a Catholic Church and school. When he arrives, after a journey of considerable danger, he finds that there is no body to bury as it was destroyed by a bomb. A dozen or so students are left in the church, all preteens and terrified. Bale doesn’t care much, he still wants to be paid whether he buried anyone or not and he knows there must be money in the church. He stays the night, ignoring the children’s pleas for help. The church is visited by a number of prostitutes who believe if they butter Bale up he will help them escape the occupied city through his advantages position as a Westerner. The Japanese army arrives and begins tearing the church apart, and a drunken Bale dresses up as the priest in a drunken lark and turns the army away. From there he begins to change and assumes the responsibilities of the real priest in protecting the children and now the prostitutes.
The tone is in the tradition of Going My Way (1944), though it would rather be compared to Schindler’s List (1993), I’m sure, but the character is not as enigmatic as Schindler and the movie isn’t willing to go to the lengths of wartime horror that Spielberg’s film was. Still, Bale is quite good as the kind man and he’s joined by the remarkable Ni Ni as the leader of the prostitutes. They form a bond over their desire to protect the children that eventually blossoms into a bittersweet romance.
The film is narrated by Shu (Zhang Xinyi) one of the students but her input is used like that of the little girl in Days of Heaven, an observer more than an actor. The climax involves the escape attempt by the children who have been ordered to attend an ominously dangerous party thrown by the Japanese. Ni offers herself and the rest of the prostitutes to take the place of the children and Bale’s ability as a mortician is suddenly useful as he can make the much older women appear to be school-aged girls. Bale has the women lie down as he doesn’t know how to make-up someone sitting. The film has the ability for raw emotion and is both sweeping and focused. Director Yimou Zhang is one of China’s finest filmmakers and he has made a picture that resembles his fantastic Raise the Red Lantern, in which a national story is told from the battlefield of one household, or church in this case. It’s interesting, the Japanese have not been kind to Bale. He was interned by them as a boy in his first starring role in Empire of the Sun, also set in China, and here he is as a man trapped again.