Based on the Yan Geling novel, Flowers begins with the last gasps of the battle for the city. Civilians are fleeing and the heroic Major Li (Tong Dawei) leads his band of soldiers in a last-ditch effort to save them from the marauding Japanese. The combat scenes have the verve of an action film or a first-person-shooter video game.
This is all too real. For every child Major Li saves with his sniper rifle, half a dozen others die.
The lucky few are students of a school at a Catholic church in the city, a refuge under Western protection. The priest has died, and the boy (Tianyuan Huang) in charge has summoned a mortician (Bale), who weaves through the combat zone waving an American flag handkerchief, showing off his Western beard, yelling "I am an American" at every Japanese patrol. After braving this, John Miller finds no corpse, no money to pay him, a dozen schoolgirls, a wrecked truck, and a ready supply of wine.
The walled convent, however, is "safe." And the fact that he's a Westerner protects him.
The film has poignant, heart-tugging moments and dollops of low comedy mixed in with the unspeakable horror. "Sanctuary" meant nothing in a city overrun by out-of-control goons in uniform.
"We've got virgins," the soldiers bellow when they overrun the place. Finally Miller is moved to act. Donning a clerical collar, he transforms into a righteous priest, "Father John," a man who will do his utmost to save these women and girls.
The cliches pile on the floor like spent cartridges as we meet the refined, music-loving Japanese officer who apologizes for his soldiers and is serenaded by the bloodied, shell-shocked school choir.
Characters act out of melodramatic impulses - risking life and limb over silly plot devices that send them out into the streets, heedlessly.
The Flowers of War, veering from the sensational to the maudlin, is a compromised epic that panders to the Chinese audience. Zhang Yimou and his team seem to have absorbed Yu Mo's line about what is happening to the victims, much to the film's detriment: "Sometimes, the truth is the last thing we need to hear."
The Flowers of War **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Zhang Yimou. With Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tianyuan Huang, Atsuro Watabe, Paul Schneider. Distributed by Row 1/Wrekin Hill.
Running time: 2 hours, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: R (strong violence including a sexual assault, disturbing images, and brief strong profanity)
Playing at: UA Riverview Plaza, AMC Neshaminy, Cinemark Somerdale