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Flowers of War, The

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // July 10, 2012
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted July 10, 2012 | E-mail the Author

Films based on historical events often take liberties with established facts, but they usually don't create their central characters out of thin air. This was undoubtedly the source of backlash against Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War (2011) least on this side of the pond, where it was a critical and commercial failure. The film centers around Japan's invasion of China during the horrific 1937 Nanking Massacre, but there's another culture clash on display here: it involves fictional American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) and his "role" in the proceedings. This clumsy insertion of a third party does, unfortunately, threaten to derail The Flowers of War on several occasions, but it's not necessarily a deal-breaker by any means. Despite the film's curious shortcomings, there's still plenty to like.

Featuring a strong cast of young Chinese actors and actresses, The Flowers of War features dramatic, engaging performances by just about everyone involved. Our story begins when Miller arrives of a Catholic church to bury a priest; the only occupants are Japanese convent girls, a young boy and, later, a group of prostitutes that literally force their way inside. Miller eventually takes the identity of a priest to enforce the cathedral's position as a "safe zone", but the women and children still need to be carefully protected...and in some cases, hidden. John Miller's transformation from drunken, lecherous stranger to...well, "father figure" is quite sudden but understandable, given the horrific circumstances. His transformation mirrors that of the prostitutes: led by Yu Mo (newcomer Ni Ni), these "flowers" are introduced as ill-mannered and obnoxious, but eventually become heroines in their own right. Together, their goal is simply to escape the city...but with armed Japanese guards posted at the cathedral entrances (who may or may not be there for the group's protection), it won't be an easy task.

The Flowers of War is a carefully crafted movie, for better and worse: Zhang's direction is thoughtful and artistic, showing us the human side of a brutally inhuman event. This is a beautifully-shot production with strong visual design and an eye for detail...and it's one that experienced plenty of setbacks, as shown in a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes included with this Blu-Ray release. But The Flowers of War also feels very calculated: from our American central character to the film's mixture of English and Mandarin dialogue, the source novel's original intent was obviously compromised for the prospect of international box office success. This didn't happen, so the most expensive film in Chinese history barely recouped its production budget...and, to make matters worse, these compromises give The Flowers of War a slightly pandering and predictable atmosphere. But thanks to this excellent Blu-Ray release from Lionsgate, domestic audiences can finally view the film for themselves and judge accordingly.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of The Flowers of War is crisp and well-defined from start to finish. The film's earthy, stylized color palette holds up nicely, a natural layer of film grain is maintained and black levels are typically deep and rich. No blatant digital imperfections could be spotted along the way (even during a few early scenes heavily doused in fog and...well, flour), making this a top-tier visual presentation that fans should really enjoy and appreciate. Bottom line: even if the story doesn't completely win you over, The Flowers of War is a visually stunning production.

NOTE: This review's screen caps were taken from promotional sources and do not represent Blu-Ray's native resolution.

Equally impressive is the audio presentation, if not slightly more so. Presented in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with the original mix of Mandarin and English, we're treated to a fantastic balance of bombast and subtle atmospheric touches. Obviously the battle scenes will steal the show here, from thunderous amounts of LFE to the directional whiz of flying bullets, but the film's quieter moments are extremely crisp and effective as well. Optional English (translation or full SDH) and Spanish subtitles are provided during the main feature, while applicable extras include forced English subtitles for translation purposes only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Menu designs are smooth and relatively simple, although a few trailers must be dealt with beforehand. The 146-minute main feature has been divided into just 16 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard eco-friendly keepcase with a matching eco-unfriendly slipcover and no inserts. The disc is locked for Region "A" playback only.

Bonus Features

The main attraction is a five-part Behind-the-Scenes Documentary (92:47, 1080p) which includes "The Birth of The Flowers of War", "Meeting Christian Bale", "The Newborn Stars", "Hard Time During War" and "Perfection of Light and Color". These are all self-explanatory but worth watching; the best of the lot is Part 4, which details a number of production setbacks and the complexity of shooting one particular action sequence. Parts 1 and 5 are also standouts; respectively, they focus on the film's origins and adaptation, production design, and problems associated with shooting in unfavorable weather.

Also here is the American Theatrical Trailer (2:32, 1080p), which sells the film nicely without giving away too much. Overall, it's a well-rounded collection of extras, especially considering the film's domestic box office performance. All bonus features include forced English subtitles for translation purposes only.

Final Thoughts

The Flowers of War is a fictional account of a very real event, which immediately means it's walking on a very thin tightrope. Though our American lead often stands in the way of a compelling yet predictable story, the dramatic license still lends itself to strong performances and stunning production design. Lionsgate's Blu-Ray casually brushes off the film's DOA domestic release, pairing a rock-solid technical presentation with a handful of appropriate bonus features. It's easily worth a rental for fans of historical fiction, but there's enough here to make The Flowers of War worth owning. Mildly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.

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