I'm sure I'm probably alone when I say that for myself Christian Bale's most interesting films have always been his less mainstream ones, with films such as "The Machinist" and "Harsh Times" only being further evidence of this and while everyone is still pretty much cooing over his performance as the dark knight, it has meant that this film, another of less mainstream projects has once again slipped under the radar.
Based on the book "13 Flowers of Nanjing" by Geling Yan and set during the 1937 invasion of Nanking, China by the Japanese army were mortician John (Bale) arrives at a Catholic church to prepare the church's priest for burial. However upon arriving at the church he finds himself the sole adult amongst the young Covent girls who are soon joined by the prostitutes from the nearby brothel claiming sanctuary. Now he finds himself in the unwanted position of protecting the girls by pretending to be resident priest.
Directed by Yimou Zhang who is probably best known for his Hero trilogy (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) whose popularity only makes it all the more surprising that this film did not get better distribution, especially with Bale in the lead, which also makes it only the second fully Chinese-funded film to have a Hollywood star in the lead (the first being the Kevin Spacey headed "Inseperable") aswell as also having the honour of being the most expensive. Still considering the subject matter it hardly makes for the most fun viewing, while reminding us of a frequently less remembered time in history, were the atrocities being committed by the invading Japanese were easily comparable to those of their Nazi counterparts.
Needless to say Director Zhang does not ease his audience into the situation currently happening, as he shows John stumbling through the corpse strewn streets, dodging stray gunfire from the invading Japanese soldiers hunting down the last of the Chinese soldiers still trying vainly to defend the city. Picking up two of the terrified convent girls he his lead back to the church, which has been left in the wake of the priests death to be defended by the teenage George (Tianyuan), whose attempts to stop the local prostitutes also moving into the church basement are made in vain, especially when they are lead by the fiesty Yu Mo (Ni Ni). It is within this opening half hour which Zhang paints a city now largely abandoned apart from the invading Japanese army and this mixed group seeking refuge within the walls of the church and he makes no qualms about showing the real horror of war, via some truly kinetic battle scenes and especially from the perspective of a Major Li (Dawei) who is soon left the long solider and unofficial protector of the girls before his sudden and surprising removal from the film, but only furthering the harsh realistic view point Zhang has chosen for this film in what is a noticeable departure from his artistic styling's and use of key colours which made his previous films so memorable, though despite this he still manages to find time for the occasional flourish such as the shots of shattering stained glass, which often sit awkwardly amongst the scenes of vile human atrocity being committed alongside.
Despite being ultimately the saviour for the two very different groups of girls, Bale's character is far from a shining example of sainthood, for when he is first introduced he is shown as a drunk, more concerned with drinking communion wine and plundering any funds contained within the church, than showing any concern for anyone else. However it is only after the attempted gang rape of the Covent girls by an out of control platoon of Japanese soldiers that he soon finds his moral backbone, while continuing to portray the church priest, in order to invoke an uneasy arrangement with Japanese Colonel Hasegawa (Watabe) to keep the church free from invasion by his troops by posting an armed guard outside the church.
Switching the focus throughout Zhang paints as full a (if admittedly one sided) picture as possible of this group and their view points on the situation, especially as it brings them together to form a mismatched family, especially as some are forced to make hard choices come the end of the film, which will certainly tug on the emotions of even the most stone hearted amongst you. However despite having more than its share of emotional moments and a unquestionable atmosphere of sheer terror throughout, it is hard to ignore the length run time, which does at times feel as if it could have been trimmed down in places, without sacrificing the heart of the story. Equally frustrating is the fact that it often feels like many of the cast are speaking in forced whispers with Bales especially being a prime offender of this, despite giving another truly believable antihero performance.
Ultimately this film is a mixed experience for while it contains many moments of real emotion and unflinchingly shows the invasion of Nanking for what it was, while equally let down in this respect for not showing the Japanese from any view point other than from the Chinese standpoint, leaving us with no explanation or understanding of their behavior. However despite this it still remains one the better dramas about this particularly troubling chapter of history and for that fact alone it is worth watching, if only to remind us of the evil war brings out in those caught in the conflict, while ensuring that it's never forgotten.