By: Henry J. Fromage (Five Beers) –
Like Chinese everything, Chinese cinema is growing by leaps and bounds. In April, the Chinese box office passed Japan to become the second largest in the world, so even in general consumption of filmed mediocrity, they’re lapping at theU.S.’s heels, relatively of course. With this Great Leap Forward (look who’s a punny guy now) has come a rise in amount and scope of domestic film production, to the point where Hollywood film stars are beginning to recognize the paycheck potential of moonlighting in China.
What is going on here, Kevin Spacey?
One of the most high profile examples of this was Christian Bale’s turn in last year’s Flowers of War. Many people were excited by the potential of Bale headlining an epic historical film by the director of Hero, Zhang Yimou and backed by the biggest budget in Chinese history- 94 million big ones. And yet, it came and went without much of a splash.
The story follows an American ne’er-do-well who ends up posing as a priest to project a mission full of Chinese schoolgirls from Japanese invaders during the infamous Battle of Nanking. The plot thickens when a group of prostitutes also seeks out shelter in the mission, and a Japanese officer takes an interest in the choir abilities of the schoolgirls. Since this historical event is better known by the more accurate title of The Rape of Nanking, you can probably guess at the potentially for things to go badly from there.
First off, the Rape of Nanking is one more unfortunate chapter in humanity’s long history of behaving like animals, but with less impulse control and sense of fair play. Events like this, while unpleasant to acknowledge, should be learned about if only to help prevent anything like them happening again. In whatever format, efforts to spread this knowledge should be applauded.
The film itself roots around like a blind squirrel for your heart, but ends up finding it by creating some well-rounded characters you care about and then putting them in gut-wrenching situations where they make sacrifices that you can’t help but admire. Yimou doesn’t hold back or sugarcoat the brutalities, admirably ignoring movie conventions in order to better communicate the horror of what happened. He also creates some memorable, very stylized action scenes that both look good and remind you how much of a bitch a war with China would be. Turns out when you have enough people that you can form a bullet-absorbing suicide bomb conga line, you’ll probably be tough to beat.
I admire your persistence, but just use the goddam rocket launchers!
If this movie was made for 94 million, then how much does competent CGI cost inChina? At a certain point wouldn’t it be cheaper to just blow shit up for real? Alternatively, how much of a paycheck did that sly devil Christian Bale get?
Hopefully they didn’t play Bale anything exorbitant, because he mostly phones it in. It doesn’t help that his extremely broad and mildly hokey character plays like an American written by a Chinese person… oh wait.
Hmmm… now I know how it feels
Unfortunately, Bale isn’t the only over-exaggerated stereotype present. While I didn’t expect morally complex, nuanced villains from a Chinese production of a horrific event that is still raw seventy-five years later, I had hoped for a bit more from the director of Raise the Red Lantern. While he does attempt to give additional depth to one Japanese officer, it’s too little, too late. Especially after the dirty, crazed soldier who charges into a room full of schoolgirls while cackling “We’ve got virgins!”
If there ever was a film that didn’t need an extended musical number with flashy choreography, this would probably be it.
How did they manage to coordinate that many cat strangulations?
Well, I’m not longer wondering why this film didn’t make more of a mark internationally. While the aim and plotting are good, way too many broad touches and a heaping plate of melodrama push this one closer to the “Boom Boom” Bay conception of history than the nuanced Eastwood one you’d like to see.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every Chinese act of bravery
Take a Drink: for every Japanese act of dastardliness
Drink a Shot: Schoolgirls vs. Prostitutes. Fight!