Director Zhang Yimou — whose works range from the intimate “Happy Times” to the grand canvases of “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero” and the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies — takes on the tragedy of Nanking in “The Flowers of War.”
The tale of the Chinese city, whose occupation by Japanese forces in 1937 resulted in an estimated quarter million civilian casualties and 80,000 rapes, has been told in documentaries and feature films, but the epic scale of Zhang’s film is unprecedented.
Yet at two hours and 20 minutes, with a huge cast, a $100 million budget and Zhao Xiaoding’s panoramic cinematography, “Flowers of War” focuses on individuals, the way Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” does. It is a personal and character-based film set against a historical monstrosity.
Zhang, recently in San Francisco to promote the movie, says the story of the people caught in the catastrophic event is more significant than the background or history of the Nanking Massacre: “The most important thing we can take away from it is what it says about human nature, love and sacrifice. These are the things which are truly eternal.”
He also doesn’t believe the story of Nanking has been told too many times. He says, “It has to be done. How many films of World War II in Europe and of the Holocaust are there? For the Chinese people, it is just as important as keeping that history alive in the West.”
The plot revolves around a sleazy American undertaker trapped in a Western cathedral, along with students and prostitutes trying to escape the city. The building should be off-limits to Japanese soldiers, but they disregard extraterritoriality.
Christian Bale plays the American, who is caught in the robe of the priest he had come to bury, and is forced — by circumstances and conscience — to help those he finds, instead of profit.
The story is told through the eyes of a student played by 13-year-old Zhang Xinyi, in her first film part. Ni Ni, making her acting debut in a leading role as one of the prostitutes, may well follow the path of previous Zhang stars such as Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.
IF YOU GO
The Flowers of War
Starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni
Written by Heng Liu
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Running time 2 hours 21 minutes