I came to watch The Flowers of War through a rather convoluted course of events. I'm not even sure how I stumbled over it. I might have been browsing 80s movies and followed the breadcrumbs from Empire of the Sun through Christian Bale to The Flowers of War. Alternatively, I might have been looking to see what Bale had done since the Batman films.
Having found the IMDB page, I was curious, but cautious. The film is about an American mortician (Bale) trapped in Nanking during the Japanese assault and subsequent (gruesome) sack. He, a handful of Catholic schoolgirls and a collection of prostitutes end up being holed up in the Nanking cathedral, and the only remaining priest has died. Bale's character impersonates a priest in an attempt to protect them.
The trailer makes it seem as though Bale will have a conversion, becoming the thing he pretends to be. Maybe the prostitutes will convert as well!
Nope, it's a muddled plot that seems to be based on a survivor's reminiscence of the Rape of Nanking.
The Japanese are universally portrayed as murderous, rapacious and treacherous, which isn't out of line with their behavior at the time.
What I found particularly interesting was the depiction of the Nationalist Chinese forces, who were appropriately wearing German M35 helmets and armed with Mauser rifles and Czech light machine guns. These guys were a pleasure to watch, the the Chinese commander was a veritable John Rambo in terms of slaughtering the Japanese. I much enjoyed this revisionist take.
But the bulk of the film moved slowly, and uncertainly. Bale's character is a lapsed Catholic who never utters a prayer or crosses himself. He is shown in the pews at one point from a distance, and the narration describes him as praying, but despite all the harrowing circumstances, the schoolgirls never reflexively resort to prayer, nor does Bale try to lead them in it.
As the peril increases, no one references God, it's all about deception and tactics.
That's why I regard the film as a failure and a disappointment. It was made in 2011, and I'm assuming the PRC played a role in its production. This would explain the void where faith should have been. Had I paid for a ticket, I would feel ripped off. As it is, I liked the KMT John Rambo, and feel sorry for Bale, who seemed to struggle with what he was supposed to be and where the film was supposed to go.