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Eve Lucas: Spoils of War

War films? What for? Two Berlinale films that premiere recently give vastly different answers.

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Jayne Mansfield’s Car

“War! Huh-yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again y’all” – ‘again being the operative word. Two films that premier today in and out of Competition at the Berlinale revisit bellicosity – with vastly different outcomes.

When that song was written, the US was embroiled in Vietnam, about which plenty of good films, really good films, have been made. The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Apocalpse Now – they’re legion.

Like Coming Home, Billy Bob Thornton’s newest venture into directing, Jayne Mansfield’s Car comes at Vietnam from a non-violent angle, bringing together the families of a deeply Southern patriarch (Robert Duvall) and an aging English gent (John Hurt), husbands number one and two respectively of the woman they are now burying, somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line.

It’s 1969 (the year Motown recorded “War!”) and amid the generational bickering and comedic Transatlantic accent standoff, we learn that each of the male characters (two seniors, a combined total of four sons plus a couple of grandsons), have fought in major conflicts or are about to.

So much for the format, which has its moments. Everybody gets their swing at the bag: drop outs, coke-heads, buttoned up Brits, decorated fighter pilots all give us their take on conflict and the cumulative message is more than clear: we are all losers in war.

The drawback to the format is that things quickly get disparate. No sooner have we engaged with one story, then it stops and the next one picks up again. A great pity, because there are some good stories in there, and some great actors (Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton, Ray Stevenson) playing them. But with this kind of abundance, somebody is bound to get short-changed, with the result that the parts of this movie are better than its sum.

But it’s still leagues ahead of the over-extended, self-indulgent drivel dished up on the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937 by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose foray into public spectacle at the Beijing Olympics seems to have rendered him incapable of reticence and tact.

 In Flowers of War, Christian Bale is acceptable as an American opportunist turned good guy, persuaded to stay in war-torn Nanking to take care of convent girls and prostitutes holed up in a church that is also a Red Cross sanctuary. How much better would he be, with a decent script and some qualified acting from his supporting cast?

The cohorts of unbelievably brutal, grimacing, shouting and snorting Japanese soldiers and a church full of beautiful Chinese girls (who subscribe either to the single-tear or streaked-face school of drama, depending on the social status of their characters) are beyond the pale of formulaic sentimentality.

The dialogues are stilted, costume changes (in the cellar of a church with the constant thud of warfare in the background) completely unnecessary, ditto glimpses of flesh as the prostitutes change into convent girl uniforms to stage their sacrificial outing to sing for Japanese officers.

Thornton’s exploration of the price we pay, as a group and as individuals, for becoming involved in destruction, supports and encourages discussion, Flowers of War is the kind of movie that could well end up being as divisive as the conflict it portrays.