I'm a huge fan of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, though it's pretty near-impossible not to be. For my taste, he is one of the handful of great directors today, even though most people don't know of him. Though I'm pretty certain they know of at least some of his work.
I wrote about him here a couple years ago, for his film Hero, which is probably the most beautiful movie I've ever seen -- as I said in the article, much of it was like watching a French Impressionist painting. Seriously. And it was a very accessible, interesting story. He also directed, House of Flying Daggers, which was quite successful over here. But what most people almost surely know him for is that he's the fellow who directed the otherworldly, amazing opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.
He's gotten lots of offers to direct a Hollywood film, but always has turned them down, choosing instead to work in his native China.
I just finished watching The Flowers of War, which he directed in 2011, and it's the closest Zhang will likely come to making that Hollywood film. The star of the movie is Christian Bale, and at least half the dialogue, probably more, is in English. Oh, and it's a tremendous film. If you have Netflix or a service like that, add it to your queue tonight.
(In fact, for those wary of subtitles, I suspect that The Flowrs of War didn't get a nomination for a Best Foreign Film Oscar because too much of the movie is in English to qualify.)
Telling the premise doesn't do the film justice, since it's filled with a range of twists and emotional turns along the way, and is at time brutal, tender, heartbreaking and enthralling. The movie is based on a true story that took place during the Rape of Nanking in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China. Bale plays a self-centered, drunk mortician hired to help bury the British priest of church. His only concern is getting paid, and when there's no money, he stays the night because there's a great bed there. But also there, the church houses a dozen terrified schoolgirls, and then a group of courtesans break their way in for refuge, and hide and selfishly party in the basement. Bale himself hides when Japanese soldier break in the next day and chase the young girls, but their growing screams finally get to him, and he throws on the old priest's collar and frock and...well, as I said, there are twists and surprises the rest of the way. It's quite wonderful -- in rich storytelling (with a screenplay by Heng Liu, based on the book by Geling Yan) and virtuosic filmming.
By the way, if you do rent the movie, be sure to watch one of the special features on the making of The Flowers of War. It's about 18 minutes long, and one of the best "behind-the-scenes" featurettes I've seen. It's not simply self-praising interviews, but actually stars before casting is done during the storyboarding phase, and you see the process.
It also makes clear why Zhang Yimou prefers to only make his films in China. For starters, they have access to 250 acres of empty ground, on which the build the entire bombed-out town of Nanking, including the walled-in, high-steepled church complex. And when American films basically get a couple weeks to rehearse, there's an off-handed comment made by one of the young girls about how they trained for two months. The freedom that Zhang Yimou clearly has, from watching this featurette, to make movies his way, down to the smallest details explains why anyone trying to hire him elsewhere is fighting a losing battle.
The trailer doesn't do the movie justice, but here it is. And as you watch it, remember: they built everything --
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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