‘The Flowers of War’ has overpowering scent of nationalism

Have no doubt. Director Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” is a propaganda movie where the Chinese are all heroic and the Japanese invaders are all despicable. We’ve seen this kind of war movie before, but haven’t audiences matured beyond the black and white stark morality?

The movie is based on Chinese writer Yan Geling’s novel “13 Flowers of Nanjing” and will have a limited release in Los Angeles and New York (opening 23 December for a limited run)  in order to qualify for the Academy Awards before reopening next year. With a large Chinese population and the newer Chinatown, you’d think it’d open up in the San Gabriel Valley, but you’ll have to travel out to WLA, and see it at the Nuart.

Yan Geling with Liu Heng wrote the screenplay which is in Chinese and English. “The Flowers of War” is one of the first Chinese-financed movies with a high profile English-language movie star. In this case, the star is Christian Bale, who was recently involved in an altercation in China as he attempted to meet with a dissident, Chen Guangcheng.

Remember,  Bale came to public attention when Steven Spielberg cast him as the 13-year-old protagonist in the 1987 “Empire of the Sun.”  The Welsh actor played an upper-middle-class English boy who becomes separated from his parents in Shanghai as the Japanese Imperial Army invades and he is imprisoned by the Japanese in an internment camp during World War II.

That movie featured more complex human relationships (Bale’s character Jim befriends a Japanese teenager ) than “The Flowers of War.”

Set on 13 December 1937, “The Flowers of War” takes on a mystical air with children running through the fog with an air of desperation.  The narrator is a young girl, Shu (Zhang Xinyi), and she and her classmates are running back to the sanctuary of a Christian church, the Winchester Cathedral. The pursuers are the lustful Japanese army and the flight of the girls and one boy is aided by the remnants of the Nanjing Army led by Major Li (Tong Dawai).

Bale’s character, John Miller, is also heading toward the cathedral. He’s a mortician and the cathedral’s priest has died. John meets up with the girls and they reach the cathedral which has a large compound encircled by high solid walls and a wood gate. With the priest dead, his body blown away by a bomb, and the cook, runaway with the food, the children are alone–a dozen girls and a one orphan boy, George Chen (Huang Tianyuan).  You can see where this is heading?

John is not a good man, yet. He is a mercenary at heart and his scenes with the young girls comes across as a bit creepy. John isn’t the only opportunist searching for sanctuary. A group of high-class prostitutes also force their way into the compound. They are glamorous, beautifully coiffed and made-up as if they were just taking an evening stroll through the bombed and burned city, stepping elegantly over the corpses.

John is delighted with these ladies of questionable virtue and takes a particular interest in the haughtiest, and the formerly most sought after whore, the aloof and beautiful Yu Mo (Ni Ni).

John is searching for money. The ladies are hoping he’ll be able to use his Western face to get them out of Nanjing. They take over the basement. John remains upstairs in the late father’s room, getting drunk. When the Japanese break in and attempt to rape the students, he at first cowers in an armoire, but eventually John emerges, dressed as a priest and attempts to bluff his way past the Japanese. The Japanese aren’t quite convinced, but the noble Major Li picks a few soldiers off and the soldiers retreat to capture the sniper.

The character development of the adults is shaky. John’s English dialogue seems unnatural and even after the initial creepiness of John’s money-grubbing, grasping character wears off, there’s still something queasy about the juxtaposition between the nostalgic sensuousness of the inner sanctum of the women’s world of lingerie and laughter in the basement and the death and grittiness of war. The situation will tug at your heartstrings, but still the transformation from drunken mercenary to conscientious “father” isn’t convincing.

The girls are temporarily “safe” when a good (a stiff Atsuro Watanabe) Japanese officer assures Father John that order has come to Nanjing and the Colonel posts soldiers to “protect” the girls–keeping them in. Yet under orders, the colonel “invites” the girls and not their guardian to a party where it seems assured they will be raped and then killed.

There are some other troubling cultural problems. Were daughters really valued that much in China, or just ones who were in Christian schools. I wondered if instead of a father, a nun might not have been in charge of female students, but I’m not an expert in Christianity in China.

The term genocide is modern, coined in 1944 by a Polish Jewish legal scholar named Raphael Lemkin. Yet the concept of rape and pillage is not new. Consider the classic play “The Trojan Women.”  Written in 415 BC, the tragedy was written by Euripides and deals with the fate of the noble women of Troy who are to be divided up as trophies and slaves.

Consider the genocide of the Native Americans under Manifest Destiny. What about the Aborigines of Australia and New Zealand? Consider the Armenian genocide, the European Holocaust, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.

Reading the list of genocides listed at The History Place, I wonder about the genocides that built the European imperial empires or why they are not considered genocides. Perhaps in the future they will.

The Rape of Nanjing is a horrific part of history, but were the Japanese really much worse than any other imperial army?  During the Boxer Rebellion, the Boxers didn’t rape women, but members of the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the United States) did. The Japanese were reportedly shocked at the Western troops and their behavior. The Russians and French were considered particularly appalling in their attitude toward women and the thousands rapes; some women and girls reported committed suicide to save themselves.

Japanese comfort women weren’t the only instances of forced sexual slavery. During World War I, German military forces opened brothels, reportedly dragging women and girls to the brothels. The Germans under the Nazis also used Jewish and non-Jewish women for forced sexual slavery for their troops. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Polish Army and the Soviet Army committed rapes.

In the aftermath of World War II, sexual violence and rape were not prosecuted at Nuremberg despite the widespread and organized system of the Nazis. At the Tokyo Trials, war rape was prosecuted.

Filmmakers once saw the Nazis as cartoonish embodiments of evil and that works for Indiana Jones which is just an adventure cartoon played out by live-action actors. Not all the Nazis were bad, particularly in China where John Rabe worked to save Chinese from the horrors.

This movie is undoubtedly the Chinese side of this incident with a heavy dose of exotic romanticism. What is the truth? Even the Chinese under Mao weren’t particularly interested in talking about the Nanjing Massacre of 1937.

The Nanjing Massacre oddly seems defined by a place. Where the Japanese better behaved in other areas of China? The Japanese, just as the Germans, were not all evil. While John Rabe risked his life wearing the swastika in China in 1937, similarly, in 1940 a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, then vice consul in Lithuania, worked to save Jews and non-Jews by writing visas.

Some of those bearing Sugihara signed visas ended up in China, mostly finding sanctuary in Shanghai. The Japanese government protected them despite German pressure to turn them over.

In 1937, Kiichiro Higuchi aided Jewish refugees crossing Russia into China and arranged for them to settle in Harbin or Shanghai or gave them exit visas.

Yet what about the status of women in Japan and China. There used to be a saying among the Japanese: You sell you sons to the army and your daughters to the Chinese. The Chinese prostituted Chinese women and women from other Asian countries, sending them as far as the United States.

If the Japanese weren’t all bad, remember Christians in China later suffered under the Chinese. Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China and many European and American Christian missionaries left. Chinese Christian churches were allowed to self-govern, but increased political pressure resulted in Christian worship being driven underground. Churches were destroyed. Christians were arrested, imprisoned and even tortured.

Then there’s the curious position of women in China today–supposed equals under communism, but under the one-child policy unwanted at birth but desirable as a bride due to a shortage of women. Consider that conundrum when watching the prostitutes sacrifice themselves to save the virginal school girls. For what end?  Remember Yan Geling also wrote “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.”

“Xiu Xiu” was banned in China. “The Flowers of War” is an expensive Chinese production and has already opened in China.  Yan Geling knows that sex sells, but as I haven’t read her book, I can’t say if the overpowering nationalism is part of her original theme along with the strict dichotomy between virgin and whore (even with a heart of gold).

What I feel is the lesson one can learn from the issues of the Rape of Nanjing is: You can’t expect your enemies to treat your women and children better than the worst way you treat your own. And instead of condemning the Japanese and their actions, we should examine the commonalities of war and how people–men, women and children are treated.

Instead of condemning the Japanese, we should condemn all warriors, soldiers and armies who raped and pillaged. Then, perhaps instead of studying war, we would start studying peace. As for “The Flowers of War” this is a manipulative tearjerker that depends upon stock characters. I longed to know more about Li. The lovely cinematography doesn’t make up for the contrived story that doesn’t attempt to bring depth to important issues.
“The Flowers of War” opens 23 December 2011 for one week. It will open to wider release nationwide next year.

The Flowers of War
(2:00 5:15) 8:30
Sub-Titled, Dolby Digital, One Week Only

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