“The Flowers of War”
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Staring Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tianyuan Huang, Dawei Tong
Film score composed by Qigang Chen featuring violinist Joshua Bell
American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) is stranded in Nanjing during the 1937 Japanese invasion of the former Chinese capital. Miller finds refuge with a band of young convent girls, an orphaned boy, and thirteen courtesans. Internal struggles are eclipsed when Japanese soldiers discover and attempt to sexually assault the convent girls. The unlikely group are forced to work together and make sacrifices to survive.
Jenn and I have our own rating for Chinese dramas; The “Tissue Count”. How many tissues did we use during the movie? The reigning champ is Zhang’s “Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles“. “Riding Alone” pulls hard at the heartstrings as we see the bonds between fathers and sons torn and mended. It was a 4 tissue movie for Jenn, 2 for me. Or “King of Masks”, illustrating the gender inequality as an aging street performer with no heirs inadvertently adopts a son, only to discover he’s a she. The old man’s rejection of his loyal “doggie” and her efforts to get back into his good graces had both of us reaching hand over fist for hankies. Unfortunately “Flowers of War” cannot be given an official “Tissue Count” rating since Jenn had a paper towel at hand. The “tear your own size” towel was thoroughly soaked when the credits rolled.
The next day I asked Jenn what she thought of “Flowers”. She liked it more than “City of Life and Death”, Lu Chuan’s film about the massacre. She said she “wanted to go out and run through a field of flowers, take a bath, or do something to wash away the depression” that swept over her after “City”. I understood what she meant.
I felt the same way after reading “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang in the early 00’. It was like examining a psychotic murderers unstoppable rampage on a much larger scale. When I think of depravity, the events in Nanjing come to mind. In 2004 Chang committed suicide. In one of her three suicide notes she wrote:
“Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take — the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea.”
Separated by distance and time the atmosphere of Nanjing in December 1937 seems to have invaded her soul.
“What about the movie Jeremy!?!”
“The Flowers of War” conveys the terror of 1937 Nanjing while offering a glimmer of hope, symbolized by the church’s stained glass window. The light of life radiates the lives of those taking shelter in the church, each inhabitant acting as though inspired by the divine. Miller, a drunken lout at the film’s outset, finds himself robed in the dead priests vestments, becoming a father protecting his children. The courtesans, looking for escape, chose to stay and sacrifice for the children. Zhang’s impeccable use of light and color keep the movie from sinking under it’s own weight.
Zhang doesn’t sugarcoat the violence. This is not a movie for people accustomed to watching Nicholas Spark adaptations. Sure, you’ll get the emotions and a touching love story. But you’re also going to get innocent people shot at point-blank range, soldiers stabbing women and children, and recreations of the horrific photos to survive from the event. However “Flowers” doesn’t revel in the savagery. It’s used effectively to create the atmosphere and reality of what took place.
The bonus material comprises a segmented feature-length documentary. Handheld camera’s document the production of the film from the beginning. Sets, pyrotechnic challenges, the casting of unknowns to play the convent girls and the courtesans, and of course Bale on set. Ni Ni, the actress portraying the courtesans’ leader falls apart on her first day of shooting. An assistant dries her tears to keep the hours of makeup artistry from being washed away. Most fascinating was watching a group of 21st century girls in tears as their hair is chopped off in preparation for shooting. Zhang should have waited until they had to film a moving scene involving the girls then cut their hair. His job with first time actors may have been easier.
If you are not familiar with Nanjing massacre, a review of the Wikipedia page will get you up to speed on the events, the controversy, and the outrage. Detailed reviews of “The Flowers of War” are plentiful. I would recommend HighDef Digest or Blu-Ray.com’s reviews to start with. Several critics were put off by the inclusion of a western protagonist. I was baffled. Were these critics ignorant of the actual events? I could be wrong, but I don’t believe the Japanese soldiers would have thought twice about disposing of a Chinese priest. It isn’t Miller’s garments that protected him; being a westerner does. In turn he becomes a savior to the survivors. Do reviewers like Roger Ebert not know this?