Review of The Flowers of War, Directed by Zhang Yimou
By KENDRICK KUO
[Warning: The review below contains mature themes]
The Rape of Nanjing is a historical event that continues to play a role in Sino-Japanese relations. Whenever the Japanese government reviews or changes its educational curriculum, its treatment of the sacking of Nanjing (or Nanking as it was spelled then) is heavily scrutinized, as well as its account of the way Japanese soldiers treated the women of Korea during their occupation. The Flowers of War begins with the fall of Nanjing and its ensuing violence.
The story is centered on how three worlds collide. The world of John Miller (played by Christian Bale) is that of an American mortician who is in Nanjing to bury the priest of a Roman Catholic cathedral. He arrives to find that there’s no money to pay for his services. When he arrives he is confronted by a group of young girls who are students at the cathedral.
These young girls are stuck in Nanjing because the father of one of the girls promised to get them out of the city on a boat and then failed to deliver. They are protected only by the walls of the church, which is supposed to be a safe haven under the security umbrella of Western powers. Soon after John arrives, a group of infamous prostitutes force themselves onto the church grounds.
These prostitutes have a mystique, being known as sophisticated women of high society—despite the negative connotations of their trade. Their lifestyle is antithetical to the chaste and religious life led by the young girls, and immediately they begin to step on each other’s toes.
The tension builds when Yu Mo (the leader of the prostitutes) promises John sexual favors if he, as an American, gets them out of the city to safety. John shows his true stripes when he refuses and argues that it’s impossible. (The underlying reason is that John cares only for himself.)
These three worlds become one when Japanese soldiers storm the cathedral and attempt to rape the young girls. The young girls divert the attention of the soldiers away from the prostitutes hiding in the cellar. In an act of courage, John demands that the soldiers stop their actions while posing as the priest. The Japanese commander then decrees that the young girls will attend a victory celebration, where they will surely be used by the Japanese men and will not likely make it out alive. The climax is reached when Yu Mo leads the prostitutes to decide to dress up as the young girls and take their place so that John can sneak the girls out of the city.
The way the church girls look down on the prostitutes when they first arrive reminds us of the Pharisees and their self-righteousness. They refused to share their bathroom with these sinners, just as the Pharisees refused to share their table.
In John, on the other hand, we see a picture of redemption and of conversion. His about-face from drunkard to protector of the defenseless in a matter of minutes is unbelievable and quite a jolt for the audience. Nonetheless we still view him as our flawed hero. But ultimately the hero/heroines are the prostitutes.
We are internally geared to view the apex of heroism as Christ-like sacrifice; more specifically, of substitutionary sacrifice with its cruciform archetype. In taking the place of the girls, the prostitutes were hauled into trucks and faced sexual assault to the point of death. This was vividly depicted in City of Life and Death, which was another historical dramatization of the sacking of Nanjing. Filmed in black-and-white, the film showed the atrocities against the Chinese women as well as the massacre of Chinese POWs. The Flowers of War doesn’t explain what happened to these women after they were taken away to the victory celebrations, but rather ends with the girls safely hidden in the back of the truck driving out of Nanjing with gratitude in their hearts.
The Flowers of War celebrates redemptive and sacrificial themes that should rightly be admired by all. Bring Kleenex.