The Flowers of War [DVD]

Every country should have a chance at their own Gone with the Wind. You know, a movie that combines an epic scope of war with a love story. Big stories, big music, big scenes, big costumes…big everything. China came up with their own epic last year, The Flowers of War, starring that incredible Chinese actor, Christian Bale. The Flowers of War is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, and also set box office records in China when it was released in 2011. That’s not to say it’s a very good movie, because it’s not. It’s technically impressive, with a big-scope feel to it, and it shines light on an historical event that isn’t particularly well known. Unfortunately, it’s also a bloated cliché fest that has Christian Bale running around in it in order to appeal more to non-Chinese audiences. It just doesn’t work.

Taking place in the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937, The Flowers of War tells the story of the “Rape of Nanjing,” during a war between Japan and China. The Japanese soldiers have overrun the city and they’ve got just one thing on their mind: raping some virgins. Well, they probably had other things on their mind, but that seems to be the goal of the soldiers in this movie. Well, that and screaming and laughing whenever they come across a female over the age of about eight. As the city falls, American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) is in town to help bury a Catholic priest and ends up at the priest’s church/school, finding it populated by a group of female students who are hiding from the marauding Japanese soldiers.

Miller is a bit of a drunken douchebag and provides little direction for the girls, who would like to get the hell out of Dodge if possible. They are soon joined by some local prostitutes, led by the amazingly cute Yu Mo (Ni Ni), who try to get Miller to lead them to safety outside of the city. He laughs off that suggestion and eventually the soldiers find the church. A somewhat sympathetic Japanese colonel gets involved but it’s pretty clear that if Miller doesn’t do something, the girls are gonna see some pretty hard times soon.

By ten minutes into the movie, pretty much anyone will realize that Miller won’t stay a drunken, buffoonish loner for long. Also, it’s unlikely the convent girls and the hookers will stay in separate camps. Or that Miller and Yu Mo will keep their growing attraction at bay. Or that all the girls and hookers will stay alive through the whole movie. The numbers are there and kung fu movie director Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) paints right into them. He uses amazing colors and the visual style is compelling, but the story is just boring. Yes, yes, he’s drunk but will soon pull it together. Yes, that seemingly selfish hooker will sacrifice herself in some amazing way. Yes, that Chinese soldier will sacrifice himself in some way. Yes, George, the Chinese orphan who works and lives at the church, will sacrifice himself in some way. We can see it all in our mind's eye, we're just waiting for the lines to be delivered.

The money spent on this big-budget Chinese prestige picture is all on the screen. The battle scenes and even the dream-like sequences in the church are a pleasure to watch, but the script is dreadful and even the performances (many of the hookers and kids were newcomers) are a bit stiff. Once Bale sobers up and seems engaged, he’s his usual excellent self, but he just seems out of place. Why even cast him other than to pump up overseas appeal? It doesn’t work, and a better script would have been the place to start. The Flowers of War is a big-budget and impressive visual picture, so watching it on DVD when you can get a Blu-ray is not the way to go. The picture and sound on the DVD is acceptable, but you really want the best you can get here and that’s going to be HD, of course.

For all its faults, this DVD does have one thing going for it: a really unique backstage look at the making of the film. The making-of documentary is about 90 minutes long and broken up into five sections. Rather than have some sort of storyline or arc to the sections, it’s more just a real behind-the-scenes look, showing some of the good and bad that comes with making the most expensive movie in the history of your country. Director Zhang Yimou is the focal point, although oddly never mentioned by name, always called “the director,” at least in the subtitles. The pressure on him to make such an expensive movie is discussed openly, and it makes the whole thing seem more real than the usual PR bull you get with these things.

The basic making of the film, the script, the casting, the sets, the stunts, are all covered, but so is the finding of the young, inexperienced actors. That’s really fascinating as they show things like cutting the girls' hair for their characters and watching some of the twelve-year-olds cry as their long hair is replaced by an unflattering bowl cut. Or watching the stern, perfectionist director chastise their performances over and over again. There isn’t much sugar coating here; it’s not embarrassing or harsh, but it is realistic.

Christian Bale gets a close look, and that’s interesting, although when they interview him his mic doesn’t appear to be working so it’s like he’s talking from the far end of long tunnel. However, again, they don’t pull punches and others talk openly on how he was cast to increase the box-office appeal of the movie since it cost so much to make. It’s rare that you don’t hear the usual “Oh, I’ve always been really interested in the Rape of Nanjing and jumped at the chance to do the movie.”

A lengthy sequence covers the filming of a 10-second segment in the opening scenes, which show the battles between Japanese and Chinese soldiers. If you ever want to get a sense of the stress and cat-wrangling feeling of a big-budget picture trying to do a real stunt rather than a computer effect, this is the extra to watch. It was fascinating.

Overall, the extras boost up the overall enjoyment factor of the disc. However, it’s still not a great movie, and no amount of behind-the-scenes insight can make up for that. It’s probably better to stick with our own Gone with the Wind until the Chinese get theirs right.