Buried Credits, a column that deep dives into the IMDB pages of favorite actors, directors, and writers to find their lost, forgotten, or unknown film and TV credits, continues this week with works featuring Christian Bale.
The Flowers of War (2011)
I don’t typically care for war films, but this one is an exception. Detailing characters trying to survive during the Nanking Massacre in China, it surpasses most war films I’ve seen to become a thing of beauty. Directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), The Flowers of War follows quite a few different types of people trying to survive Japan’s attack on Nanking and learning to work together and appreciate each other despite their differences and hardships. A group of schoolgirls, led by Shu (Zhang Xinyi), take refuge in their church, sacred ground that the Japanese are supposed to leave alone, along with John (Christian Bale) who is a mortician here to bury their recently deceased pastor. George (Huang Tianyuan), an orphaned boy who was taken in by the pastor, is also staying at the church and he begs John to fix a truck out front so that he can help them all escape, but John has no interest in this as he won’t be getting paid for any of this work. Shortly after, a group of women from the fabled brothel Jade Paradise, led by the phenomenal Yu Mo also show up to take refuge and ask John to help them escape as well, pointing out that the Japanese won’t shoot Westerners. Throw in intense shootouts (including one of the coolest war shootouts I’ve ever seen in a film), the horrors, and I mean absolute atrocities, of war committed by the Japanese, and some incredibly poignant relationships, and you get one incredible war film.
The Flowers of War is a downright heartbreaking and breathtaking experience. From its intense, as well as soft and emotional, cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) we get an incredibly bleak, yet beautiful tapestry. There’s one shot that feels like it’s right out of an Alfonso Cuarón film, a long and intense take that ends with the camera even jumping off a building and into the water to follow a character. The directing is masterful and the writing is powerful. The film tells a bleak tale of the kinds of horror that went on during the Nanking Massacre and never shies away from pulling punches, showing us quite often that this is war and war is hell – especially for the innocent, who tend to suffer the consequences more severely than the soldiers. The film is never too bleak though; even though it’s full of tragedies, it has it’s moments of sheer beauty, especially when it comes to everyone just wanting to protect everyone else. The relationships between the schoolgirls and the prostitutes starts off very judgemental and harsh, but in the end it becomes an incredibly emotional relationship that you never want to end. Everyone’s acting here is absolutely wonderful. From Zhang Xinyi’s incredibly emotional and tragic acting, to Ni Ni’s tender and strong acting, to pretty much everyone. I give them all praise for being able to not only cry, but to laugh and bring joy and happiness to such a dark film. I also have to mention Huang Tianyuan specifically for his incredibly emotion performance at the end of the film.
One of the most interesting things about this film is it’s take on and breakdown of the “white savior” stereotype. In typical American made films, a character like John would be the white knight that comes in to save the day and saves all the people due to his sheer will power. In this movie, however, John’s character is forced into being the “white savior” kind of character. He doesn’t want to do it, nor is he nice enough to do it, but through the horrors of war and his privilege of being a Westerner as opposed to Chinese end up forcing him and convincing him to help, and he learns to become a better man because of it. On top of that, despite his star power, he is also not really the main character of this film as the main characters are all the amazing female characters portrayed here. I hold it to the incredible writing here by Liu Heng (novelist and screenwriter, Breaking the Silence, The Knot, Assembly) who proves to be masterful at his craft with this character and all the other wonderful characters throughout this film.
Bale himself is in perfect form here, doing just as good a job as the incredible Chinese and Japanese actresses and actors in this film. He portrays scenes of raw emotion, but nothing too intense to overpower nor overshadow anyone else in the film. His tenderness in certain scenes is breathtaking, his anger is intense, and the man very clearly seems to be living these scenes of horror on display in the film. It isn’t too standout in consideration to a few of his other roles, especially after watching him in Laurel Canyon, as I feel like he has played characters like this before, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad in any way.
Verdict: Buried Treasure!!
With so much death there also comes so much life and heart. The Flowers of War is a film I will be watching many times again in the future. Sure it’s heartbreaking and at times really hard to watch, but the film is absolutely incredible. How this is a lesser known film I have no idea, how this film didn’t make the list of Best Foreign Film nominations for the 84th Academy Awards I also have no idea, as this is by far a phenomenal film. I will be sharing this film with everyone I know and I hope you all seek this out and enjoy and share it as well.