Are the lives and bodies of a dozen virginal 13-year-old girls worth the same as the lives and bodies of the equivalent number of prostitutes? That's the moral dilemma at the heart of Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War, the celebrated filmmaker's surprisingly intimate take on that increasingly popular cinematic subject/historical atrocity, the Rape of Nanking. When Japanese soldiers invade the sanctity of a Catholic church in occupied Nanking, they demand the presence of the prepubescent students at an official function, one which, given an early scene of Japanese infantrymen attempting to brutally violate these very girls, will certainly involve rape and likely lead to their deaths.
Also camping out at the church is John (Christian Bale), an American mortician turned surrogate priest, and a dozen prostitutes who've come to seek sanctuary. With the hookers hidden away from sight, that benevolent group hits on the idea of pulling the old switcheroo, dressing themselves as the students and going willingly to their doom in the girls' place. There's some debate as to the moral efficacy of the maneuver, some pathos milked from John's inevitable romantic attachment to one of the prostitutes, and from the equivalencies the film draws between the young girls and their older counterparts, both of whom were subjected to childhood-defeating stresses at a young age. But mostly, the decision is one readily accepted by both the film and its characters without too much handwringing and the film's heavily educed final act simply milks unnecessary tension in the endless preparations for the final horrible moment.
For the rest, Zhang's film is a bit of a hodgepodge, a work that sets up as epic in scale (what with plenty of shaky-cam battle scenes and pretty shots of devastated landscapes), but then pitches its tale on a far smaller level (most of the film takes place in the church). It's a messy movie that contains both such unfortunate lapses as the sudden transformation of the Bale character from self-obsessed cad to self-sacrificing saint and an unnecessary narration delivered by an otherwise superfluous character, as well as some genuinely strong bits of filmmaking as in a Zabriskie Point-like explosion of a church building and quieter moments with Bale believably interacting with both sets of female refugees. Similarly, the film's treatment of the central historical atrocity, though somewhat peripheral to the main narrative, is handled responsibly, neither blunting the force of the brutal rapes that marked the incident, nor reveling in them for sensationalist value. But ultimately, this film has too many weak, unconnected strands (what's the subplot about the narrator's father doing here anyway?), too much overtly expositional dialogue, and too unfocused a narrative to really cohere. And then there's that whole matter of expendable whores.