The year is 1937. A group of school girls run through the smoke-filled streets. They scream, as shots fill the air. Heavy footsteps grow louder, and the girls scatter frantically. One of the girls tries to hide inside a pile of grain sacks, only to find a crowded group already inside. Pushed back out, she takes refuge inside a large pipe. Japanese soldiers fill the streets, and a few of them look suspiciously at the sack pile. One soldier takes a few wild stabs and withdraws a dripping bayonet. He calls to his comrades, who join him in shooting and stabbing into the pile. Blood seeps through the sacks of grain. This was Nanjing.
Directed by Zhang Yimou, Flowers of War depicts the gruesome period of Japanese occupation in Nanjing that is commonly referred to as the Rape of Nanjing. John Miller, an American mortician played by Christian Bale, arrives in Nanjing to bury the head priest of a convent. On his way to the convent, he picks up the group of fleeing school girls. They are joined by a gaggle of flamboyant prostitutes who are seeking shelter from the invading soldiers.
At first, Miller is more interested in the wine cellar and Yu Mo, the sophisticated leader of the prostitutes played by Ni Ni. However, after personally witnessing the Japanese soldiers’ attempted rape of the school girls inside the church, Miller resolves to protect the females by impersonating the dead priest.
Although Japanese Colonel Hasegawa attempts to protect the convent, he later helplessly informs Miller that the higher level officials have ordered the school girls to perform as a chorus for the soldiers in celebration of the successful occupation of Nanjing. Knowing the girls would be raped to death, the prostitutes, led by Yu Mo, decide to take their places to preserve the girls’ innocence. While the women are led away by the Japanese soldiers, Miller leads the girls to safety by smuggling them onto a truck that is leaving the city.
I was very reluctant to write about this movie, because it addresses many sensitive topics. Although many years have passed since the Japanese invasion of China, nothing is forgotten. But this movie is a reminder that when the dark side of society bares its face, every day heroes can rise up and restore our faith in humanity.
John Miller was meant to be the central hero figure of the story. He changes from an irresponsible drunkard to a brave man of improving moral character. However, I find the actions of other, minor characters to be more compelling and heroic. For example, the soldier who uses his own life as bait to lead the sex-crazed soldiers away from the convent displays an enormous amount of courage and selflessness. He was also smart in taking out many of the soldiers in his act of suicide.
The same spirit of self-sacrifice is evident in the prostitutes, as well as the little altar boy. Knowing they would be raped to death, the women volunteered to take the girls’ places. The boy, arguably, is even more commendable due to his youth and his gender. In comparison, the girls, who are about his age, seem annoying and even a tad ungrateful. They have done nothing but bicker, blame each other, and judge the prostitutes throughout the length of the movie. I doubt they even understood the seriousness of the invitation, and thus the magnitude of the women’s sacrifice.
My biggest complaint about the movie is that it seems too isolated. All the events took place in the convent, and the character list was limited. I think it fails to capture the full scale of terror and horrors of the Rape of Nanjing. The mass murder and war rape in the six week occupation period resulted in approximately 300,000 casualties. The point of making these movies now is not to generate hatred or resentment for the perpetrators. Though, I might add, some historians refuse to acknowledge that the incident occurred and the Japanese government fail to take full responsibility for the war crimes. The purpose really should be to commemorate and honor the soldiers and ordinary citizens who gave up their lives for the hope of a better future.