The Flowers of War (2011): Movie Review
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The Flowers of War (2011): Movie Review

Rape. Murder. Brutality. Survival. These are the elements which form part of the tragic “Rape of Nanking” in 1937. And this is the story depicted in the 2011 top-grossing film “The Flowers of War”. Combining breath-taking scenery, good-looking casts, and haunting suspense, the movie is certainly one of China’s pride in the recent years.

The Flowers of War is a 2011 Chinese historical drama war film directed by Zhang Yimou. Based on Yan Geling’s novel, “13 Flowers of Nanjing,” the movie is a story of the heartbreaks and struggles of a group of escapees during the “Rape of Nanking” – a mass murder and war rape during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Main cast of the movie consists of Christian Bale, breakout artist Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Tong Dawei,  Atsuro Watabe, Shigeo Kobayashi, Han Xiting, and Cao Kefan.

Plot. The movie opens with chaos all over Nanking, China’s capital city during that time. It is December 1937 and the Japanese Imperial Army is bombing and invading the city. Desperate civilians are running everywhere, dodging the war bullets and looking for safety in the torn buildings. Amidst the turmoil, American mortician John Miller (played by Bale) arrives in Nanking as he is commissioned to bury the foreign head priest of a convent for Catholic Chinese girls. He meets two of the girls along the way, and with their guidance, he arrives at the convent only to discover that the priest’s body was flown away by a bomb.

A short time after his arrival, a group of dashing and beautiful prostitutes from a local red-light district come to the convent. They seek refuge and hide in the cellar as foreigners and foreign institutions are not harassed by the Japanese. Despite the urgings of George, the convent caretaker and the resident priest’s adopted son, Miller refuses to protect the church as he sees no obligation in staying here. However, he changes heart as the convent is repeatedly visited by Japanese soldiers searching for females to rape and thus, he poses as the priest. Miller is also being secretly helped by a surviving Chinese soldier who hides behind the rubbles outside the convent. Yet, he sacrifices himself later when the Japanese attempts to invade the area.

After one incident, Japanese Colonel Hasegawa promises to protect them by placing guards in front of the gate. Miller has second thoughts about this, and with the help of one of the girls’ father, he starts to repair the convent’s truck in the hope he can find opportunity to bring the girls and the courtesans out of Nanking. But Miller’s plans are soon jeopardized when, after Hasegawa hears the girls sing a choral for him, the colonel hands him an official invitation for the girls to sing at the Japanese Army’s victory. Fearing their safety and doubting the Japanese’s true motives behind the invitation, Miller refuses and begs the colonel to spare the girls. However, Hasegawa informs him that it is an order from the higher authorities and that the girls are to be fetched the next day. The Japanese soldiers count the girls and erroneously include one of the prostitutes, who strayed from the cellar searching for her cat.

The girls are horrified by the idea of singing for the Japanese and so they attempt to jump off the convent’s roof altogether that night. Miller and the prostitutes prevent them from committing suicide by telling them that they, the prostitutes, have decided to take their place. Miller initially disagrees to their self-sacrificing decision, but eventually helps in their disguise with his skills as mortician. As the Japanese expects thirteen girls to sing and there are only twelve courtesans, George (the convent priest’s adopted son) also volunteers.

The following day, the thirteen are picked up by the unsuspecting Japanese soldiers. After they have left, Miller hides the girls on the truck which he has successfully repaired. Using the permit which he has previously obtained from his collaborator, Miller drives out of Nanking, heading towards freedom for him and the convent girls.

In the final scene, as one of the girls reflects on the brave sacrifice of the prostitutes, a voice says, “Until this day, I still don’t know what happened to the women of the Qin Huai River. I never learned all of their names, and never saw them being taken away by the Japanese. So, I always imagine…. I imagine myself standing by the large round window, watching them walk in once again.” And the scene flashes back to the moment when the courtesans came to the convent, looking flamboyant and beautiful amidst all the chaos of Nanking.

Commentary. The Flowers of War is a visually beautiful movie, expected as it is considered the most expensive Chinese film ever made. The casts are gorgeous and good-looking – from Bale’s rugged and beardy countenance, to the smooth-skinned and flawless prostitutes, and even down to the innocent girls and the brutish Japanese soldiers. The setting is as well perfection – from the dead and white rubbles to the tall and proud convent. The colors are vivid and every scene seems to jump out of the screen. Generally, the fight scenes and the physical technicalities are at par with Hollywood movies.

As breath-taking as it looks, The Flowers of War is overridden with sentimentality. As it depicts the horrors of a fateful history, the movie has a number of harrowing moments like the number of stark cruelty on the streets and the self-sacrificing heroism of many characters. At some points, the plot is overdramatized and slightly loses touch of reality, particularly the way Miller’s character transformed from the greedy and selfish coward to the wise and loving hero. The entire change happened within the confines of the convent when he had actually witnessed more severe violence and hopelessness beforehand. It is how the characters are built and the slow-paced subplots that really make the movie less believable.

The movie may have been less successful in several parts, but taken as a whole, it is deeply moving and overwhelming. It is its theme of sacrifice and redemption that really got me. Miller and the prostitutes are similar entities, lonely and misjudged people but incredibly rose to passionate and selfless heroes when the occasion calls for it. As in life, it is never too late to be good and to do good. The girl’s recollection towards the end also struck me, when she only remembers the prostitutes in their most beautiful moment. As in life, it is our choice which memories to keep and cherish and which to forget and leave behind.

All in all, the movie is a certain tearjerker. In a way, it haunted me as I wish for a happier ending (though I also think that there is no better ending than that).

Reception.  The Flowers of War is the top-grossing film in China in 2011 and presently, the sixth-highest grossing film overall. It is also China’s entry as Best Foreign Film in the Golden Globe Awards, as well as to other international awards.

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