Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
One of the ancient ploys of the film industry is to make a film about non-white people and find a way, however convoluted, to tell it from the point of view of a white character. "The Help" (2011) is a recent example: The film is essentially about how poor, hard-working black maids in Mississippi empowered a young white woman to write a best-seller about them. "Glory" (1989) is about a Civil War regiment of black soldiers; the story is seen through the eyes of their white commander.
One of the last places you'd expect to see this practice is in a Chinese film. But what else can we make of Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War"? It takes place during the Rape of Nanking (1937-38), one of the most horrifying atrocities in history, during which the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the Chinese capital city and slaughtered an estimated 300,000 civilians, usually raping the women first. It is one thing for civilians to die in the course of a war, and another for them to be hunted down and wiped out on a personal basis for the crime of their race.
Now we have the first fiction film about this event by one of the leading Chinese directors, who contrives to tell it through the experiences of a drunken American mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale). This man finds himself in Nanking at the time, misses a chance to escape the city and ends up hiding out in a huge Catholic cathedral, which is theoretically neutral ground.
Also sheltered in the cathedral are about 25 young Chinese women, divided between schoolgirls and prostitutes. Miller is a mess in the early scenes of the film, but slowly he pulls himself together, sobers up, dresses in a priest's vestments and takes on the responsibility of protecting the women. He's assisted by a young man named George (Huang Tianyuan), whose owlish spectacles and little cap make him look ineffectual and set him up for heroism.