In “The Flowers of War,’’ when a lone Chinese sniper blows up himself and a pack of Japanese soldiers, the blast sends dust, debris, and fabric flying through the air. It’s not that you notice the colors of the fabric - they’re like fireworks. It’s that you notice that you’ve noticed. The comely images in this movie - and there are many of them - call attention to themselves, as do most of the images in most movies by Zhang Yimou, - from “Ju Dou’’ to “The House of Flying Daggers.’’ The idea here is to foster visual irony. The film is set during World War II not long after the Japanese have devastated the former Chinese capital, Nanking, in 1937 and ’38. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were murdered, and Japanese battalions stuck around to pick from the massacre’s bones. In many cases, that involved raping girls, young women, and men.
Zhang’s irony arises from some contrast between vibrancy and death. Zhang loves life too much to let it pass without a flourish or some grandeur. Here that commitment to zest and the color wheel seems increasingly, unconsciously futile. The movie focuses on a group of Catholic-school girls, holed up in a church, along with the band of Chinese prostitutes that lets itself in for shelter. The girls’ priest has died, but in his place wanders an American mortician, a hairy and charming alcoholic played by Christian Bale. He arrives just in time to protect the girls from the Japanese marauders intent on violating them. He does so by posing, for the girls and the Japanese, as a priest.
The movie is based on a novel by Geling Yan, “The Thirteen Flowers of War,’’ whose title suggests the number of girls left in the orphanage, the number that the Japanese expect delivered to their quarters to perform a hymn. And the central tension amounts to how to save the girls from the Japanese, because everybody - the girls, the prostitutes, the American - knows the Japanese don’t really want to hear anyone sing.
“The Flowers of War’’ is the latest movie focused on the Nanking atrocities. Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death’’ was released in the United States last year and presented a far greater, grimmer, and more punishing re-creation of the sacking. Lu held the fragrance. Death was all you could smell. “The Flowers of War,’’ by comparison, is a confused film. All Zhang’s splendor does is foster cognitive dissonance in an audience. That business with the sniper and the hunt for him is a well-orchestrated digression whose punch line is those clothes in the air. Vibrant imagery has always attracted Zhang: the cinematic way fabric ribbons or ink pools. The years have taken him further from the governmental and patriarchal disturbances of his early work, and, to some extent, that’s understandable. He’s 60 now, and fighting oppression with art can be wearying. In the last decade or so he’s become - for him - ensconced in a sort of comfort. He’s tried weepies and enormous martial-arts pageants, movies that, really, lots of other directors could have made. You worry that that comfort might have sapped him of urgency. His last movie, “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop,’’ was an all-buffoon remake of the Coens’ “Blood Simple,’’ and as amusing as it was, it was also shrill.
“Noodle Shop’’ was a soap opera in desert-western clothes. It was a movie that Bale’s character might have wandered into. Instead, he brings strange comedy to a film that isn’t sure how to handle it. This is the sort of loose, open acting Bale often seems to take himself too seriously for. But he reminds you here that, in addition to everything else, he could be a big movie star, too. This, of course, doesn’t feel like the occasion for a star - or a white savior. In “The Flowers of War,’’ touches like those feel both superfluous and corny. The only explanation for the attraction that erupts between Bale’s character, John Miller, and the most elegant of the prostitutes (Ni Ni) is that it will afford Zhang an opportunity to inject some high-grade schmaltz. The same with the inclusion of the dead priest’s little helper, an orphan named George, who proves critical to the execution of the rescue plan. Huang Tianyuan plays George. He and Zhang Xinyi, who is the most fearsome of the schoolgirls, are both good beyond belief. Their characters’ hard, terse realism, their knowledge of what they’re up against with the Japanese, makes all the sugary, flowery stuff with Bale and Ni Ni, all the little fantasies and grace notes (when stained glass shatters it sounds like chimes) seem beside the point.
Zhang isn’t naive about the war or this particularly nasty chapter in it. But by focusing solely on the girls in the church and the prostitutes in the basement, the movie willfully narrows its effect. Watching death and deprivation from a 12-year-old’s point of view is all the more harrowing when she knows what might await her. But the movie lays so much lilting shot-making and gorgeous music over all this death that at some point you start thinking of Zhang as a filmmaker after John Miller’s job. He’s a mortician, too.