Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review of Flowers of War [金陵十三钗]

The first thing I'll say is that it was a good movie. Not being a movie critic, I shouldn't need to say much more. It has a truly fantastic story, a tremendous cast (Zhang Xinyi turns in the best performance as 13-year-old Meng Shujuan [this Zhang, thankfully, is not 13], though Christian Bale also does his thing and shows everyone that he doesn't need world-class lines to be a world-class actor). Go see it.


Here, allow me to say that if you don't read the rest of this post, I won't blame you. You should just go see the movie. But if you insist on staying... was a good film that was good enough for us to all get glimpses of how it could have been great. And it was not great. And because it wasn't, I can't help feeling a bit let down, even though, truth be told, the film surpassed my expectations.

Is that possible? To be simultaneously satisfied and disappointed?

A friend who left the theater with me commented that this was a "very Chinese" film. But I have to disagree. It's "slightly" Chinese, I'd say -- if anything, it tries to resist being the classic "Chinese" epic (will explain soon). This film, after all, is China's hope to win an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language category precisely because it tries to be Hollywood. We end up with a Chinese/Hollywood hybrid, and it's good, it's fine, but -- at the risk of repeating myself -- it doesn't fulfill its potential.

Let's define what it means for a film to be "Chinese." Watch enough movies made here that authorities insist on calling "epic" and you'll see some recurring characteristics. (Apologies for these generalizations.) There has to be a moral. There has to be a Manichaean divide between good and bad, nothing in between. There has to be a weepy, faux-emotional scene -- or like four or five. There is usually enough histrionics to put a Peking Opera singer to shame. There has to be endless explication, so that "the point" falls off a roof and whacks you in the head, at which point you look up and see a movie stagehand wave both arms and go, "And here's the point, in case you missed it...!"

To that end, Flowers of War was sparing -- and that's an accomplishment. This was a Chinese production about the Rape of Nanking. It featured pre-adolescent girls who spend a third of the movie crying, and obvious foil characters in the form of prostitutes. It was a war film with "flowers" in the title. Do you realize how disastrous this movie could have been? Here, read this excerpt of an essay that the lead actress, Ni Ni, wrote about her character Yu Mo:

I Yu Mo, am in love with this man. I know my love probably won’t survive, and I do not want to drag him down. I hope he can have calm and happiness … tonight, I am the most pure Yu Mo, most tolerant Yu Mo, the most lovely Yu Mo, the most real Yu Mo … I want to enjoy this short encounter, treasure every minute and every second in my mind.

Ni turned in a solid performance, but if she were under the direction of a lesser production team -- perhaps John Woo of Red Cliff fame -- do you realize how badly this could turned out?

Flowers isn't your classic contemporary Chinese epic. There are many scenes that were cut at just the right moment, before it crossed over into the cloy or arch. But -- and here's what I mean when I say Flowers could have been better -- there were a few times when I wished another editor could have looked at a scene and said, "You know what... too much."

But the people behind Flowers have studied Hollywood, and they generally know what works. (We'd do well to remember that this movie, a shoo-in for a Chinese Oscar, was made to impress the judges on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences panel; SPOILER ALERT, CHINA: Flowers isn't going to win; if it does, it's because someone was bought off.) There's romance that's halfway plausible (despite what Ni Ni writes, it's not love; sorry, it's not, and it's better because it's not love); there are Japanese characters who are not all evil; there is this incredible scene -- and I don't think I'm giving too much away, but I'll sound the spoiler alert anyway -- this short dream sequence envisioned by the girl Shu where prostitutes are dressed in colorful gowns and saunter toward the camera while singing the most poetic music (undoubtedly the best scene in the film). (Incidentally, Chinese viewers may be turned off by all the above; sex in a movie about the Rape of Nanking? Unthinkable!) It's all good, quite good -- but it's all very derivative, not exactly hackneyed, but imitative nonetheless.

Now, we should point out that it's a good imitation of a good Hollywood film, and that's nothing to be ashamed of -- after all, there's a reason the term "Hollywood film" exists: because there is a mold, and oftentimes writers and directors are judged by how well they conform to that mold while disguising the mold from the audience. It's all sleight of hand, this "magic" of moviemaking. But the problem is, because Flowers is a Chinese film -- or is supposed to retain elements of Chinese-ness, given that it's a government organ that supplied the $90 million to make this flick -- it gives itself away a bit more easily than it might have otherwise. We see the gears churning and the imperfect seams. It's impossible for me to cite examples without spoiling the movie any more, so here I'll just repeat: go see it; what I'm saying will be self-evident.

Flowers is good despite its imperfections, yet I can't help wishing that it were good because of them. I wonder what a less canonical but better director, someone like Jia Zhangke, would have done with this material (though really, who knows how he or anyone else would have been warped by the $90-million budget).

One last thing: This film inevitably will be compared to Schindler's List. I'm not going to google this, but I'll bet my last drop of intuition that it's already been called "China's Schindler's List" by someone on the Internet. Regarding this, please allow my one observation:

Schindler's List built up to its emotional climax; just when it seemed like the film might let you, the moviegoer, slip out of its black-and-white reality without bawling like a baby, you got hit by that scene. You know the one. There's ample risk building a movie toward one breathtaking climax, but a master of the craft like Steven Spielberg can pull it off.

Flowers wanted that kind of emotional payoff, but it wasn't willing to push all its chips into one moment. Instead, it hit you with several moving, heartrending scenes -- scenes that, from what I could tell, wanted you to cry -- scenes that were good, and that really might make you cry (seriously, be prepared for that), but by the end, the accumulation of these psychic blows might leave you feeling something of emotional fatigue. We aren't able to bear more. As in, we're not as invested as we could or should be. And that's too bad, because to the very end, I really wanted to invest more -- call that a credit to the film, one that tries earnestly and should be rewarded for its effort.

And now -- in case you didn't click on that first link -- Zhang Xinyi, again:

UPDATE, 1/14: Thanks to those who have written in to point out that 13-year-olds don't have breasts that look like the above.


Anonymous said...

That is NOT the same Xinyi Zhang

Jodes said...

that is Viann Zhang Xinyu on the cover of GQ! I'm fine with posting the link, but you most definitely have get that fact straight. They CLEARLY do not look the same! Xinyi is obviously under 18!