In the dark history of human atrocity, one savage, inhuman chapter that is always missing from the textbooks in courses about the Pacific conflict in World War II is the Rape of Nanking. Except for the occasional documentary, this harrowing event has gone largely unexplored by filmmakers, yet it surges with historic value and the elements of heartbreaking drama. Ask history majors about what the Japanese did to freedom-loving civilians to alter the world and all they know is Pearl Harbor, Bataan and the Death March. Now the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made a valiant and compassionate effort to enlighten the ignorant. The Flowers of War is his best film since Raise the Red Lantern. It is emotionally shattering.
In the winter of 1937, after Japan conquered and destroyed Shanghai, Emperor Hirohito’s cruelty and ruthless thirst for power shifted to Nanking, the Chinese capital. More than 200,000 people were massacred, including the Chinese army, and only a handful of ordinary people fought to survive. Their bravery and heroism have become legendary in China. This is the true story of an American mortician named John Miller, brilliantly played by Christian Bale, who miraculously made his way through the fire, mortar and bombs to reach a Catholic cathedral to prepare a murdered Catholic priest for burial. When he reaches the church, a small altar boy is the only one left to offer shelter to the homeless. Having already missed the last boat out of the harbor before the Japanese takeover, John hides out in the church himself, sharing space with 13 terrified convent girls and a group of abandoned prostitutes from the Jade Paradise, a notorious brothel in the red-light district. As the fumes of powder and perfume waft up through the rafters, the painted women and the innocent virgins all turn to him as a kind of surrogate savior. Far from being a saint, he’s a thief, an adventurer and a drunken war profiteer. But he is also inexplicably transformed by the plight of these women and children to find a conscience he thought buried long ago—especially by a beautiful courtesan named Yu Mo, who begs, “If you help us, I will thank you in ways you can never imagine. All of us will.” It’s a plea, made to a lonely man who hasn’t been with a woman for years. It is also a challenge. The movie catalogues the events, large and small, in the lives of these dissimilar people—each one a flower growing up to the light through the filth and rubble of war—that bond them together with mutual respect to overcome prejudice, escape death and value life as an extraordinary gift, not to be taken lightly.
The Flowers of War is profoundly involving on many levels. Clocking in at 141 minutes, it requires patience, but the rewards are numerous. Zhang Yimou finds human revelations in small places and small faces, as seen both through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, forced to age prematurely while she watches the brutality of aggression and conflict from a hole in a stained-glass window, and through the gun sights of the last Chinese soldier in Nanking, who sacrifices his chance to leave for one final act to save his people. This is a director who knows how to tell a story from many points of view by slowly building myriad characters simultaneously: the opportunist who risks his own life to save the convent girls from rape by dressing in the robe of a priest and becomes an accidental hero; the two prostitutes who meet a mortifying fate at the hands of Japanese soldiers when they return to the ruins of their bordello to retrieve a jewelry box that symbolizes a once-privileged life now destroyed forever; the father who goes to work for the enemy to get his daughter out of Nanking, but ends up wrongly labeled by her as an unforgivable traitor; even the Japanese commander who ploughs through grenades, corpses and crushing debris for one chance to play the cathedral organ. Zhang Yimou knows how to build characters gradually, until you get to know his roll call as friends but without the unnecessary exposition that burdens most historic war pieces. But the center of the film is still the whores themselves, who make the ultimate sacrifice to save the convent girls from Japanese gang rape, giving the lie to the cliché that prostitutes are “cold and heartless.” After six years in a convent as a child, beatific Yu Mo (called Mo by her friends) was raped by her stepfather when she was 13. She has empathy for the girls huddled together in the church. By the time she had reached their age, she was already forced to take her first clients. Her special appeal for the American is completely understandable. She has education, she speaks perfect English with a mandarin accent, and she’s the one who devises the courageous plan to save the virgins from tragedy by enlisting the help of the other whores. The tableau of sewing the drapes into uniforms to trick the enemy soldiers with sex, binding their breasts to pretend they are teenagers, and using their professional skills to do one last thing in life that is honorable while John, posing as the priest, drives the children across the border using Communion wine as a bribe—well, the whole sequence rendered me silent with heartbreak. The film mercifully shields the viewer from too much graphic gore and brutality in the interests of finding an audience. But the imagination is unmistakably fueled. Instead of shock value, the director concentrates on individual acts of heroism, masterfully conveyed and emotionally wrenching.
Zhang Yimou (pronounced “Johnny-moo”) used to be a cinematographer, so his films are always sumptuous. From the colorful costumes of the courtesans performing a Chinese folk song to the ashes of the city in ruin, every image is evocative. The music is magical and gorgeous. Without exception, the richness of the cross-cultural performances really resonates. It’s rare for a bankable star like Christian Bale to collaborate with a foreign director and appear in a film of this magnitude, but having once appeared as an English boy trapped in Japan’s invasion of China in Steven Spielberg’s great 1987 film Empire of the Sun, he has remained intrigued by the period. With an unheard-of budget for a Chinese film of $100 million, his diligent work and the punishment of the no-frills location shooting in China pay off handsomely. He is just one element in a haunting panorama of a war that illuminated the bleakest corners of despair with unexpected acts of decency and valor, but he fits in majestically with the rest of the massive ensemble. In the role of Yu Mo, Zhang Yimou has discovered a new Gong Li in the luminous, radiant actress Ni Ni. At 23, she is on her way to what I predict will be a big career. The Flowers of War is not perfect. The film is too long, with so many characters it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. But it’s a special film of sacrifice, redemption and hope in the shadow of a holocaust that packs an emotional wallop from which there is no escape. I can’t get it out of my thoughts, and I recommend it highly.
THE FLOWERS OF WAR
Running Time 141 minutes
Written by Heng Liu (screenplay) and Geling Yan (novel)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni and Xinyi Zhang