A deeply emotional story of war made all the more surprising in that it’s not an American-based conflict, Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War is both physically and emotionally visceral. The casualties of war, sometimes the men in combat, sometimes the innocent victims in their wake, get studious attention by director Zhang Yimou in this epic treatment of the harrowing novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing by Yan Geling.
The Flowers of War (Blu-ray)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 142 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English/Mandarin/Japanese
Subtitles: English, SDH, Spanish
MSRP: $ 29.99
Release Date: July 10, 2012
Review Date: July 3, 2012
Caught up in the last battle of the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, the Battle of Nanking, mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) finds sanctuary in a Catholic Church whose priest Father Ingleman is no longer present. Inside are altar boy George (Huang Tianyuan) and twelve schoolgirls trapped and at the mercy of the invading Japanese. They’re soon joined by twelve prostitutes from in Qin Huai River brothel, all of whom look to John to save them and thereafter hide in the church’s wine cellar. The Japanese barge into the church not recognizing it as sanctuary and have the rape of the schoolgirls on their minds. John, now disguised as the priest of the church, attempts to waylay the Japanese and is given assurance they won’t be touched, but he has no idea that the calculating Japanese colonel (Atsuro Watabe) has his own plans for the young students.
The film’s lengthy running time of almost two and a half hours might at first seem off-putting, but there is such a startling array of scenes involving both brilliantly shot war footage and the trials and tribulations of the various young ladies inside the church that it’s never dull. Allegedly the most expensive Chinese movie ever made at $100 million, every penny can be seen on the screen. The war sequences are especially gut-churning, sometimes shot in slow motion and with violence sometimes erupting from nowhere that keeps the tension cranked to the maximum. A terrific early sequence involves a lone Chinese sniper (Tong Dawei) who ingeniously rigs booby traps to pick off as many Japanese as he can and nobly faces his own downfall with a last glorious flourish. All of this is quite early in the movie, but his heroism, a model that Bale’s John begins to evoke as the film runs, remains celebratory. The spiteful jealousies and prejudices between the schoolgirls and the courtesans might not seem to be of much interest, but as with so much of the story, the evolution of feelings from disdain to admiration comes slowly but surely, the film’s main thematic thrust. Director Zhang Yimou spares the viewer nothing, whether it be gruesome deaths on the battlefield or the horrific rapes which the almost zealously sexual Japanese soldiers inflict on their victims; the R-rating is fully warranted.
Christian Bale must have experienced some dèjá vu while acting in this movie since his first big film appearance was as a young boy in China during the Japanese occupation in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. Working with many non-professionals in the cast, Bale is simply magnificent developing his character from the loutish drunk in the early going to a committed and caring protector by the end. Newcomer Ni Ni plays Yu Mo, the head prostitute whose compassion breaks through the hardened shell she’d developed to survive in her business, and she’s tenderly effective in scenes both with Bale and with the girls in the sanctuary. It’s hard to imagine she knew nothing about film acting before essaying this role, even learning to speak English rather expertly acting as translator for her brothel girls. Cao Kefan as a father whose daughter (Zhang Xinyi) is one of the school children and who is working with the Japanese as a go-between has some emotionally powerful moments, too.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 is faithfully reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness might not always be at reference levels, but at its best, it’s a startlingly good picture. Color is richly hued and kept well under control, tricky since the inside lighting often turns skin tones almost olive. The war footage has a bleached look that definitely adds a note of dreadful, destructive unease to all of the scenes outside the church. Subtitles are in bright white and are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound mix skillfully places the horrors of war all around the viewer with split surrounds most effectively used as shots ring out from all directions. Explosions have real power (sometimes system-threatening levels of power). Ambient effects aren’t lost inside the church either as dripping liquids (water, blood) and sounds from different parts of the church are effectively placed in the fronts and rears. Chan Quigang’s music, sometimes bombastic, sometimes lyrically haunting and somber, gets superb spread through the fronts and rears.
All of the video features are presented in 1080p.
“The Birth of The Flowers of War” spotlights director Zhang Yimou as he casts the picture from the many unknowns who applied for the roles of the girls and courtesans, scouts locations and inspects the building of the massive church and city set that spans 250 acres, and gives acting lessons to the inexperienced youngsters in the cast. We also see the young women receive training in the proper walk for the brothel workers and the young men receive combat training in this 21 ¼-minute piece.
“Meeting Christian Bale” shows the actor interacting with his foreign-speaking director and co-workers with plenty of compliments coming from them all about his professionalism and courtesy. This runs 16 ¼ minutes.
“The Newborn Stars” is a 22 ¼-minute featurette concentrating on the massive undertaking of having so many inexperienced young people on the set each day trying to learn the ropes of moviemaking. The piece also notes the director’s unending patience working with these neophytes.
“Hard Time During War” concentrates on the difficulties encountered with the war scenes including dealing with so many extras, the use of special effects that were far more complex than they had ever worked with before, and the several snafus that occurred making filming difficult. It lasts 20 ¼ minutes.
“Perfection of Light and Color” concentrates on the stained glass window in the church which becomes one of the most important physical props and symbols of the movie. This featurette runs 14 minutes.
The theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes.
The disc includes promo trailers for 3:10 to Yuma, Biutful, Apocalypse, Now, and The Conspirator.
4.5/5 (not an average)
A compelling and emotionally satisfying story of war set against the backdrop of the China-Japan conflict of the late 1930s, The Flowers of War is a beautiful and haunting film. The Blu-ray offers reference quality audio and artful video imagery making it a film that comes highly recommended.