Based on Yan Geling’s novel The Thirteen Flowers of War, the film sees Bale take centre stage as American mortician John Miller. Initially portrayed as an obnoxiously greedy boozer, Bale’s performance is surprisingly hammy. His over-the-top approach clashes poorly with the serious tone established by the setting of war-torn Nanjing, circa Japan’s 1937 invasion. Holed up in a church, where had been due to assist with the burial of the priest, Bale’s Miller finds himself in the company of a young girls’ convent, before unwittingly becoming their protector from the brutality of the Japanese armed forces. Of course, things would be too straightforward were that the only issue. A group of refugees from the city’s red-light district soon storm the compound looking for safe haven. Their arrival creates quite a stir, both amongst the innocent youths and in Miller’s… heart. Ni Ni makes a strong debut as the English-speaking prostitute Yu Mo who Miller takes an immediate interest in, though the rest of her band is nowhere near as well-developed by comparison. Instead, the group is used to introduce a touch of colour to the earthy, blood soaked tones whilst they act as catalysts for several of the plot’s points of conflict.
The Flowers of War is loaded with striking imagery, stylistically and thematically. The bleak, often ultra-violent scenes are beautifully composed and balanced by the bright hues of various fabrics introduced into the story via the ladies of Nanjing’s night. Often character’s perspectives peek out from behind broken stained glass, creating arresting visual contrasts. Yimou’s use of slow-motion seems a tad unnecessary and cliché in the war-time setting. Though Bale gets off to a very shaky start, he settles in once Miller has more to do beyond being a poor caricature. There are several great moments that fully utilise the gravitas Bale can deliver so well. The multilingual cast manages to create a strong chemistry with one another and the child actors, specifically Zhang Xinyi (Shu, the central figure amongst the girls) and Huang Tianyuan (as the orphaned George) act beyond their years in weighty roles.
Working less well, is the scarlet women of The Flowers of War. Though intentionally intending to juxtapose the graphic war presentation, their presence carries too much care-free levity. Periods of tension, triggered by what can only be described as incredibly stupid decisions made by a few of the women, are difficult to buy into given how incredulous it is that anyone could be so daft to begin with. On a similar note, the solution to a major peril faced by the young girls begs the question of how it could take those involved so long to do the maths. It’s a kind-hearted conclusion, yet feels more of a stretch than an admirable example of out-smarting an enemy.
As a historical war-drama, The Flowers of War is probably a bit too melodramatic and struggles to carry an even tone. Once his character finds his footing, Bale makes for an engaging focal point, helping to create a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western film-making. Making the most of gorgeous cinematography and brutal violence, Yimou’s finished product may not achieve all it sets out to, but it’s tough to take your eyes off of it.