A war-torn epic set in 1937 Nanking as the Japanese invade, it is spectactular and harrowing, combining visceral set pieces with carefully drawn characterisation.
Bale is John Miller, a mortician who has the misfortune of being in town to take care of the funeral of a deceased Catholic priest just as Japanese forces invade the city.
He takes refuge in a church (Westerners enjoy dispensation from the savage onslaught), along with a group of schoolgirls and a harem of prostitutes, where he is forced to put his boozy, self-serving ways behind him to save the girls and preserve some modicum of humanity amidst the surrounding barbarity.
As you’d expect from an Oscar winner, Bale is superb, giving a nuanced performance, revealing subtle layers as the film progresses, with Ni Ni, making her feature debut as the leader of the red-light district’s finest, a woman who has seen too much in her youthful years.
Director Zhang Yimou, a respected pillar of Chinese cinema, delivers action that matches Spielberg’s Private Ryan (a single Chinese soldier’s stand-off with 20-strong opposition’s a pulse-quickening high).
He doesn’t turn away from the grizzlier moments, either, the sporadic violence conveying the imminent threat to all in this dark period of human history.
Yet it is the subtle, solemn passages that affect most, as moments of humanity are found buried beneath mankind at its most brutal. An intimate epic.
Good for: A history lesson with action beats and involving characters portraits