He works in mysterious ways in 'Flowers of War'

THE LORD works in mysterious ways in "Flowers of War," the story of a scoundrel who shields Chinese hookers and orphans from invading Japanese in 1937 Nanking.

The movie is a massive clash of content and tone, a strange hybrid of "City of Life and Death" and "Father Goose" that nevertheless, in the hands of Zhang Yimou, musters a few striking moments.

"Flowers" stars Christian Bale as Miller, a wayward, ex-pat Yank who's on a bender in Nanking when the Japanese invade. He stumbles into a convent where girls and prostitutes take refuge from marauding soldiers, and, in a stupor, impersonates a cleric in order to keep Japanese soldiers at bay.

Miller is looking for money, booze, and maybe some private time with gorgeous pro Yu Mo (Ni Ni), but in due time comes to take a serious moral interest in the lives of the women in his care.

Likewise, Yu Mo, who ends up in charge of the older women, comes to see the safety of the convent children as her redemptive mission, setting up a narrative of heroic sacrifice, and, if you can take a hint, divine intervention.

Yimou does not shy from the extravagant visual gesture. When we meet Bale's character, for instance, Yimou illustrates his status as an accidental angel by literally dipping him in white flour (the makings of bread, which has other implications. Sacramental wine plays a crucial role as well).

Yimou also makes expressive use of the convent's stained glass window, which becomes a sort of spiritual eye on the good and the evil below.

"Flowers of War" has been generally panned by critics, who've made entirely understandable arguments about its purple script and unwieldy blend of wartime horror, sentiment, comedy, and glossy romance (the gorgeous Ni Ni is rapturously photographed).

But I think some of Yimou's flourishes here may be more acceptable to a faith-based audience, provided they are willing to sit through some of the graphic, horror-of-war imagery.

If you're interested, be advised that the movie is getting a limited, haphazard release - at three theaters, including the Riverview, not normally home to Zhang Yimou.

The Flowers of War (Jin ling shi san chai)

Directed by Yimou Zhang. With Paul Schneider, Christian Bale, Shigeo Kobayashi. Distributed by Row 1 Product.

Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong violence including a sexual assault, disturbing images, and brief strong language).