Today’s first Palm Springs Film Festival screening was Zhang Yimou‘s The Flowers of War — a mistake all around. Set amid the chaos and brutality of the 1937 “Nanking massacre” by Japanese troops, it’s mostly a schmaltzy cornball thing with leaden dialogue and a truly atrocious performance by Christian Bale, who was apparently in some kind of leftover “Dickie” mood from The Fighter during filming.

Flowers of War director Zhang Yimou, Christan Bale during filming.

Bale plays an asshole, you see. A bearded alcoholic low-life who’s somehow landed work as a funeral director in Nanking despite speaking no Chinese (a ridiculous conceit), and who winds up inside a walled-in religious sanctuary in Act One to hide out from the marauding Japanese troops. Once inside in the company of schoolgirls and prostitutes, his only thoughts are (a) to get paid for his burial services, (b) to find booze to get drunk on, (c) to smoke cigarettes and (d) to have sex with the prettiest prostitute.

He eventually dons the tunic of a dead priest, mans up and becomes a kind of hero, but I wanted Bale dead early on. I don’t know what went wrong between he and Yimou, but it appears that he improvised his way through this thing and Yimou said “Whatever, Christian…I trust you!” It might be the worst performance of Bale’s career.

Yes, agreed — Flowers of War has some reasonably good battle scenes, some of which resemble (but don’t match) the get-the-sniper sequence in Full Metal Jacket. But it’s a B-grade thing through and through, and I knew this early on. It’s a kind of whorey soap opera with occasional rape and battle sequences thrown in for excitement’s sake. After the first 40 minutes or so it’s torture.

The first thing I did when I escaped was e-mail a friend who had seen it last November. All he had told me is that it has some “rough” scenes involving rape and killings. “Why weren’t you honest with me about this thing?,” I asked. “All you said was that it was too brutal and violent here and there. Why didn’t you just say it basically sucks?”

“I gather you found it unsatisfactory,” he replied. “I’m driving out to the festival sometime tomorrow. We can have it out there.”

“‘Unsatisfactory’? It has a 33% disapproval rating on Rotten Tomatoes!”

The best capsule pan so far is from the Village Voice‘s Tim Grierson: “Human suffering reduced to visual showmanship.”