There was a time — about fifteen short years ago, in fact — that, had a well-known Anglo actor or actress appeared in a foreign-language production, he or she probably would have been heckled mercilessly by his or her peers all the way to the unemployment line. Sure, a lot of famous faces accepted generous heaps of dough to endorse Japanese products in commercials, but those indigenous advertisements were never intended to be seen abroad. And then, the invisible barrier that seemed to prevent performers (and filmmakers, too) from adding certain movies to their résumé mysteriously vanished — and it was suddenly tolerable for someone like John Woo to direct a film in the US, or to have Paul Rudd appear in a Chinese production as the token white guy.
Nearly two decades on, that trend is still a frequently booked one, as performers far more popular than Paul Rudd will ever be are landing starring roles in movies. The case in point here is The Flowers of War (Jin Líng Shí San Chai) — a Chinese war-time drama that casts British-born Batman actor Christian Bale as an American caught amid the horrors of the Second Sino-Japanese War, specifically that which is now referred to as the “Rape of Nanjing.”
Here, Bale is a mortician named John Miller (because Joe Smith would have sounded even more generic, even to a Chinese audience), who arrives in Nanjing to bury the late priest of a Catholic church, which also doubles as a convent for a group of young teenage Chinese girls. His mission, however, is one that he is unable to perform, as the body of the father was launched into space with the dropping of a Japanese bomb. And so, the upset upstart decides to make the most of his stay in the hellhole, sleeping in the priest’s plush bed, generously imbibing the sacramental wine, and cavorting with the ladies of a local whorehouse who arrive at the church seeking a safe haven from the Japanese.
Sadly, the Japanese didn’t play fair during the Rape of Nanjing — and it’s only a matter of time before they start creeping in, hell-bent on defying the House of God and deflowering the innocence of the young ladies contained therein. It is then that Miller realizes he just might have some sort of other purpose for being there, and he assumes the identity of the church’s resident priest — waiting for the opportunity to smuggle the girls out of Nanjing like the godsend he apparently is.
Mind you, it only takes him two-and-a-half hours of screen time to get there. During that period, director Zhang Yimou graciously develops his main characters (Bale, Ni Ni, et al), though it’s mostly the youngsters who you’ll garner any sympathy or respect for. Frankly, Bale’s character is quite a tool to begin with, and by the time he finally decides to grow a protecting pair later in the film, you can only loathe him that much more for not upping the ante any sooner. That said, though, Yimou constructs a fairly adept (if overly pretentious) production overall with this adaptation of Geling Yan’s 13 Flowers of Nanjing.
But be warned, boys and girls: the harrowing scene wherein the bad guys storm the church and literally drag the girls around by their hair is most definitely not something most people will be comfortable seeing. Lionsgate brings us this lengthy wartime drama to Blu-ray with a stellar a/v presentation, and a five-part making-of feature and trailer accompanying. The movie is presented in a 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio with a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Mandarin/English soundtrack. Yes, there’s a lot of dialogue spoken in Mandarin, folks: this is a Chinese film after all.