The Lord works in mysterious ways in The Flowers of War, the story of a scoundrel who shields Chinese hookers and orphans from invading Japanese in 1937 Nanking.
The movie is a massive clash of content and tone, a strange hybrid of City of Life and Death and Father Goose that nevertheless, in the hands of Zhang Yimou, musters a few striking moments.
Flowers stars Christian Bale as Miller, a wayward, ex-pat Yank who’s on a bender in Nanking when the Japanese invade. He stumbles into a convent where girls and prostitutes take refuge from marauding soldiers and, in a stupor, impersonates a cleric in order to keep Japanese soldiers at bay.
Miller is looking for money, booze and maybe some private time with gorgeous pro Yu Mo (Ni Ni), but in due time comes to take a serious moral interest in the lives of the women in his care.
Likewise, Yu Mo, who ends up in charge of the older women, comes to see the safety of the convent children as her redemptive mission, setting up a narrative of heroic sacrifice and, if you can take a hint, divine intervention.
Yimou does not shy from the extravagant visual gesture. When we meet Bale’s character, for instance, Yimou illustrates his status as an accidental angel by literally dipping him in white flour. Sacramental wine plays a crucial role, as well.
Yimou also makes expressive use of the convent’s stained-glass window, which becomes a sort of spiritual eye on the good and the evil below.
The Flowers of War has been generally panned by critics, who have made entirely understandable arguments about its purple script and unwieldy blend of wartime horror, sentiment, comedy and glossy romance (the gorgeous Ni Ni is rapturously photographed). But some of Yimou’s flourishes may be more acceptable to a faith-based audience, provided they are willing to sit through some of the graphic, horror-of-war imagery.
Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tianyuan Huang, Atsuro Watabe, Paul Schneider
Director: Zhang Yimou, written by Liu Heng and Yan Geling, based on the novel by Yan Geling. A Row 1/Wrekin Hill release.
Running time: 2:22
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence including a sexual assault, disturbing images and brief strong language
Christian Bale with Ni Ni in "The Flowers of War." Photo: Wrekin Hill Entertainment