Since directing the spectacular Beijing Olympics ceremonies Zhang Yimou, one of the leading lights of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, has been comparatively subdued on the filmic front. But he returns to what he does so exquisitely, the period epic of heroism, heartbreak and resilient women, with his biggest-budgeted film yet. There have been other Chinese films about the ‘Rape Of Nanking’, and that is no wonder. The 1937 siege, occupation and massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians by the invading Japanese affords infinite gut-wrenching stories.
Zhang’s take, adapted from a novel, was inspired by two factual elements of the atrocity. One was the attempts of Americans in the city to shield handfuls of Chinese. The other was incidents of professional sex workers volunteering to take the places of young, virginal girls earmarked as “comfort women”, the euphemism for gang-raped, sadistically tortured sex slaves. So while cynics may scoff at Bale’s transformation from a heavy-drinking ne’er-do-well into a caring defender of the innocents, it’s a convention that leavens the harrowing events with touches of humour.
Similarly the metamorphosis of insolent, demanding dainties who have taken over the church cellar into hookers with hearts of gold (led by Ni Ni’s gorgeous Yu Mo, in a promising film debut) is a notion as old as the hills, but done irresistibly. Meanwhile a lone Chinese hero, a defiant soldier (Tong Dawei), shows John the meaning of manly self-sacrifice and the young teens (14 year-old Huang Tianyuan, 13 year-old Zhang Xinyi and the dozen girls fluttering around them) are all convincing and desperately touching. Battle sequences and action are thrillingly achieved and Zhang’s mastery shows in shot after memorable shot, like a sniper’s view through a stained-glass window.