GODDESSES IN THE FLAMES OF WAR (2018) review

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Shot in 2014 and planned for release in 2015, Wu Yigong, Jiang Ping and Li Zuonan’s Goddesses in the Flames of War had to wait for the end of 2018 to finally land on Chinese screens, in general indifference, to dismal box-office despite its starry cast, and three years too late for the 70th anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese war, which it was meant to celebrate. It calls to mind The Bombing, another recent, long-delayed all-star war epic also produced by Jiang Ping, but with only a fraction of the budget, and a more unusual focus. Indeed, as its titles indicates, it focuses on the role of women in war, following a dozen female destinies in a village occupied by Japanese invaders, by the Yangtze river. A student (Bai Bing) works for the armed resistance, a seductress (Yin Tao) uses her charms to shield other women from abuse, a wealthy wife (Zhou Dongyu) struggles with her husband’s collaboration with the Japanese, a businesswoman (Yao Chen) uses her influence to find employment for those in need… At the center is He Saifei, the film’s actual lead, as a woman who loses both her husband and her son to the Japanese, and will stop at nothing to protect her last remaining child, and get revenge.

There’s a wild discrepancy between intent and execution in Goddesses in the Flames of War: though its particular focus on the role of heroic women in times of war is a noble, unusual and welcome one, the film itself is incredibly clumsy and misguided. Constantly drenched in a desperately old-fashioned, over-florid musical score that hammers the viewer over the head with a heightened version of the already paroxysmal emotions witnessed on screen, and edited with all the skill of a ten-year-old kid discovering iMovie; even its extras seem right out of a 1950s production, falling to their death with embarrassingly theatrical spasms. Unintentional hilarity is unfortunate yet inevitable: as He Saifei’s character is reduced to emptying nightstools to eke out a living, there’s a whole montage of her emptying buckets of feces, often in slow-motion, over anguished lyrical strings. A bit earlier, in a fit of rage, the same character, is seen throwing wooden buckets at the pavement for a good two minutes, all in slow-motion of course. Later, she’s seen tearing a Japanese flag with her teeth – you guessed it, in slow-motion. Slow-motion aside, there’s also the unwittingly amusing sight of a character dying by falling into the river, a mere two meters below.

The visibly small budget doesn’t help: there’s a dearth of extras, bare sets substitute for period detail, fake moustaches seem to come unglued, and the stars all have but extended cameos, and probably worked for scale to placate their overlords. Even more damningly, the film doesn’t want to choose between being a war requiem for martyrs and heroes, or a vengeful celebration of wartime retribution. It wants to have its uplifting cake, and vengefully eat it too, featuring a character who sleeps with as many Japanese soldiers as she can, knowing she’s giving them her venereal disease, another one triumphantly impaling a Japanese guard with a hay fork, and a final massacre scene that is much more The Dirty Dozen than Schindler’s List. And historical accuracy is readily abandoned: to heighten the female focus, the film features an evil female Japanese officer, a good twenty years before it was even made possible.

The cast is a mixed bag. Yao Chen, Bai Bing and Yin Tao cut strong figures worthy of a much better film, and Zhou Dongyu excels in her conflicted character. Tong Dawei, Wang Qianyuan and Wang Jingchun cameo rather listlessly, and others, like Ma Yili and Zu Feng, must have had most of their performances end up on the cutting floor, so fleeting are their appearances. But the film’s true lead is He Saifei, whose performance is a disaster, a cringe-inducing masterclass in tone-deaf overacting. She flails around as if she were acting in a silent film, switching to sitcom-level mugging in the more light-hearted scene. She calls to mind an overeager schoolteacher making parents uncomfortable by trying to overshadow their kids in the year-end school play.

Long Story Short: Goddesses in the Flames of War‘s female-centric angle is well-meaning and unusual for a war epic, but apart from a handful of classy extended cameos, there’s not much to salvage in this cheap and clumsy mix of war requiem and vengeful propaganda. *

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