Eventually, it seems, every senseless waste of life gets its own gauzy tear-jerker. That’s about the only way to justify “The Flowers of War,” in which the veteran Chinese director Zhang Yimou revisits the Nanjing massacre of 1937 by making something resembling a backstage musical, with breaks for the occasional ghastly murder or rape....

“Flowers” has received bountiful publicity for being expensive, state-approved and Oscar-submitted, buzz that got louder last week when the film’s British star, Christian Bale, was forcibly prevented from visiting a Chinese activist lawyer being held under house arrest.

But fears that Mr. Zhang would take a one-dimensional, patriotic approach to the Japanese invasion and occupation of Nanjing (formerly Nanking), while not entirely unfounded, are misplaced. Other recent Chinese films have displayed more sentimental nationalism, jingoism and demonization of the Japanese enemy....