Returning to the Empire Of The Sun after 25 years, Christian Bale is right back where he started.
Starring in the most expensive Chinese film yet made, he’s a long way here from chasing planes in a school uniform – or chasing supervillains in a rubber suit, for that matter.
Zhang Yimou’s war epic is a handsome mess – as stirring and impressive as it is clumsy and unpolished.
Best known for those sumptuous HD-TV test cards Hero and House Of Flying Daggers (not to mention the ridiculous opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics), Yimou here turns his attention to the 1937 Rape Of Nanking.
Set in and around a convent school for Catholic girls, the film opens as the Japanese army begins its ruthless invasion.
Bale is John Miller, a cynical American mortician doing his best to stay out of the way and loot whatever he can from the wreckage.
Breaking into the convent – where a group of schoolgirls and prostitutes are hiding out from the surrounding massacre – Miller is more interested in stealing the communion wine and groping the women than acting like a hero.
Hogtied by a childlike script and bad translation, he’s a cartoon drunk. Despite the stereotyping, Bale does a fine job with what he’s given – eking out the complexities to edge his character as close to Oskar Schindler as possible as the situation worsens.
Filmed like a graphic novel, Yimou’s carnage is frighteningly beautiful. Gratuitously harrowing at times, it’s an exaggerated and poetic horror that colours his cold apocalypse.
You have to wonder why China’s most patriotic filmmaker chose to show his national history through the eyes of an American – and it’s hard not to see the movie becoming a curious blip on Bale’s own CV – but Yimou wields his camera and his emotions with such creative confidence that it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in his stylishly blinkered vision.
Less about the thousands who died in the Nanking massacre than about how stunning it all looked, Zhang Yimou’s epic puts Bale in the midst of a lavish nightmare.