I can't say that Flowers of War is really great, but it did succeed in keeping me awake the night that I watched it.
In it, Christian Bale plays an alcoholic mortician charged with burying the dead priest of a girl's Catholic school. In a wacky twist, it turns out that the Catholic school is located in 1930s Nanking, when the Japanese were, and I'm using the most culturally sensitive term that I can, getting f-ed the fuck up.
Bale walks into this cathedral, which is relatively safe, in possession of a lot of a wine and a big soft bed, and decides he'll just wait out the war there. After over a dozen prostitutes start hiding out in the same cathedral, he decides that he'll definitely wait out the war there.
It's hard to say exactly what the faults are in Flowers of War, and it's almost equally hard to identify the good parts are in this movie. A lot of the dialogue is kinda stilted and awkward, and frequently overdramatic, but then a lot of dialogue is very straight-to-the-point and/or chaotic enough to represent the reality of trying to communicate with someone in a foreign language. There are a few scenes (too many) where Bale is trying to make a rousing or sentimental speech, and it's awkward as hell. However, I imagine what would be going through someone's head in an actual situation like that, speaking English to a group of people expecting you to take and not fully understanding the words you're saying, let alone the nuance of it all. So when he starts rambling on, it is certainly unbearably awkward, but realistic in a sense.
The plot itself becomes sadly predictable after a certain point, which is a shame because maybe the whole first half of it left me guessing as to who would survive, and also because the movie is over two and a half hours long. Oh, this drunken, selfish American ends up in a situation where young students are in danger. He's probably never going to change and just keep drinking for the rest of the movie. Yep.
If I were to nitpick, it's also a movie a bit patronizing in the way it treats its women. We have a man who can't speak Chinese or Japanese, who is put in charge of a group of grown women who can speak Chinese just fine. He also spends at least a third of the time in the cathedral acting like a total asshole, so even if he was fluent in both languages, he's still not the go-to guy for being responsible for everything. Why are we following this alcoholic foreigner again?
However, despite all the problems that I can find with it, it kept me awake at night. Some of the scenes are quite horrifying, and there was more than once when I was grinding my teeth just thinking, "no no no please no no no". At one point I questioned whether this movie had more in common with the zombie genre than it did the war genre. (I think looking at how the survivors are stuck inside one location for the entire film, fighting to keep certain elements out, and having to also learn to deal with each other at the same time definitely gave this a "zombie" feel to it. It also doesn't help that this film was not super-duper kind in its portrayal of the Japanese.)
This film had a strong effect on me, and I wonder if that's ultimately not the most important thing when discussing a film's quality. There is a lot of clunky scenes, pointless scenes, and boring scenes, but there was enough tense scenes that I didn't mind watching it at all.
1) Well made? - This is from director Zhang Yimou, who made Hero and House of Flying Daggers. There is craft and care here, but I'm not sure it all came together properly.
2) Contributed? - This is a low point in Zhang's career, not necessarily a great war movie or a great zombie movie.
3) Good time? - A few really, really tense scenes are in this movie. I'm not sure if that's your definition of a good time.
4) Watch again? - I don't think I ever will. The disturbing scenes disturbed me too much, and the boring scenes will be impossible to sit through again.
5) Worth it? - Yeah, I suppose. I wouldn't strongly recommend it, but I can't say it was bad either.
6) Who should watch this? - If you haven't seen Zhang Yimou's better, more famous works, you should not watch this. If you're very, very interested in the zombie genre, I would be interested in knowing your thoughts on this movie. Does it satisfy the criteria for being a zombie movie like I might think it does, or am I way off base and shut up, Kevin?