Take one big budget war film, add a healthy dose of arthouse flavour, stir in a morality tale and sweeten with touches of a love story and you'll come close to Yimou Zhang's The Flowers of War, centred on the 1937's Nanjing massacre.
Christian Bale is — initially — refreshing as the lone American in the Chinese city suffering a Japanese invasion. As the shady John Miller, he's a mortician come to the safe haven of the cathedral to bury the priest he'll end up impersonating trying to save two groups of women — a gaggle of convent girls (and a boy tasked with their safety) and a harem of ladies of ill repute.
He more than meets his match in the enigmatic Yu Mo (a stunning performance by Ni Ni), who, goaded on by her companions, toys with him to ensure their escape. The final corner in the triangle is occupied by Shu (Xinyi Zhang), the film's schoolgirl narrator and from whose perspective most of the events are told (luckily this lends an air of innocence to the more horrific elements, while also enhancing the horror of acts like an attempted mass rape).
Said relief at Bale's lecherous character (which he revels in playing) fades fast when, along with the cassock, he dons the cloak of the good guy he always plays. It doesn't help that his development from drunken lout to hero isn't all convincing. But any film can do much worse than having Bale as its weak link.
Gritty footage shot through dust on hand-held cameras and jolty editing add to the realism of the war sequences. This is interspersed with slow-motion (almost Tarantino-esque, anime-inspired) sequences of bullets ripping through flesh and bombs exploding tanks that are beautiful, almost a poetic ode to destruction.
The vivid colours of the call girls' clothes and make-up is enhanced against the bleakness of the war-ravaged city and the dull uniforms of the schoolgirls.
Layered over this, the strings from Joshua Bell's violin tugs at the heart strings.
The result: This ambitious project (146 minutes, in Mandarin and English, with English subtitles; made on an estimated budget of Dh330.5 million) all too often subjects itself to melodrama, but one can't but be taken in by the story.
Ultimately director Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, Hero) tries too hard to combine disparate elements, but if this is his failure, more filmmakers should fail this beautifully.