Trapped in a city that is being annihilated by the Japanese Imperial Army, mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) must go to ground alongside children who are burrowing down into any hole big enough to hide them. After taking Shanghai in the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Japanese swept through the intervening territory toward the abandoned capitol of Nanking, laying waste to everything in their path. Blood-lust surged through their ranks like fire through dry tender. Nothing was sacred except the might and authority of the Japanese Imperial Army, and Nanking became a bloody, fiery sacrifice.
Only a token unit of Chinese soldiers — led by Major Li (Tong Dawei) — are left to buy time for the people running for their lives through artillery fire, disintegrating buildings, and Japanese soldiers cutting a deadly swath through every living body. The carnage begins piling up in the streets. Women and children are cut down along with the men, or taken for worse.
John Miller had been summoned to prepare the remains of the deceased priest of the Roman Catholic church for burial when time ran out to evacuate the city. He runs the gauntlet of the killing streets and arrives along with little terrified school girls from the church’s day school. They are admitted by the late priest’s adopted son, George Chen (Huang Tian Yuan), an orphan the good father had given a home..
The beleaguered church becomes the focal point for the interaction between the rampaging Japanese and the disparate characters who have descended upon the sanctuary — innocence set against brutality and depravity; self-seeking narcissism glimpsing the vacancy of its character; a haven of peace and order invaded by conflict and chaos. And all of it set against a tapestry of hell so well-depicted by the exceptional cinamatography of Zhao Xiaoding. Captured for us are the charred remains of this city of death; the fire; the ashes; the bleakness; the splashes of bright color like flowers on a scorched and barren plain.
The children arrive at the refuge battered, frightened and bewildered. Though John Miller arrives battered, it is immediately evident he is hardly more than a scruffy good-for-nothing seeking only self-preservation. To promote his own comfort and needs he takes over the late priest’s private rooms and possessions, only to end up with the legacy of the priest possessing him in a blow by blow battle for supremacy. It is a role that Christian Bale’s ascetic face and conflicted spirit is made for.
Now an unlikely clutch of beautiful young women from a famous brothel descend upon the church only to be blocked at the gate. From the beginning young George Chen earnestly tries to protect the only home he’s ever known, pulling about him a tattered semblance of order and integrity. Laughing and giggling the women hike up their bright floral dresses and literally scale the walls of the church, seeming unfazed by the horrors around them. Immediately there is a tension between the schoolgirls and the ladies of the evening — two worlds colliding. But an innate curiosity emerges on the part of both. One looks upon an exotic mystery. The other looks back on what might have been. But gates and spires and crosses mean nothing to the invaders, and only a shaky stand by an uncertain counterfeit priest stands between the children and utter ruthless savagery. Yet an unsuspected ally sends a sniper’s bullet through a stained-glass window. Major Li’s few remaining Chinese soldiers have been wiped out in the Japanese onslaught. leaving him the only survivor. Now the church and its children have become his mission — its environs his ramparts. His aspect shifts from embattled warrior to nebulous reaper, making every grenade and every bullet count, knowing his is a one-man battle of attrition, not triumph.
Much has been written and said about the Flowers of War, a lot of it badly missing the mark. Its excellence shines in a script that David Linde, former chairman of Universal Pictures, is quoted as saying, “I hadn’t read a script that so elegantly and organically connected East and West”. In spite of its critics, the movie is rife with symbolism. Flowers represent femininity, warmth, and beauty in life and in death, their bold or subtle colors a celebration of life or a contradiction of death, their essence a fragrance of hope. When that cold gray bullet came crashing through the bright illumination of that stained-glass window, bringing with it both life and death, it evoked such emotion I could barely breathe.
The Flowers of War is a film that is at once beautiful and tragic. And it is very hard to watch. It is a movie where the tragedy and triumph chop through your heart like a butcher cleaving through flesh and bone. The brutality of it can make you rage. The unlikely heroisms can expand your spirit. But one thing it cannot do is leave you unaffected.
Note: As harshly as this movie depicts the events during that time, it could not touch the reality. I tried to read some of the personal stories, but had to quit. Just reading about the atrocities seemed to leave an oily film over my mind, like pollutants on a body of water. I cannot imagine what it was like for those very real men, women, and children who fled through the streets, trying to escape from a savagery beyond comprehension.
In my opinion, The Flowers of War, directed by Zhang Yimou, took a daunting subject and turned it into much more than “a war movie”. One of the main criticisms of the film is the presence of a westerner on this dark page of Chinese history. But that presence helped bridge any gaps between me as a westerner, and the east — somewhat like an “acting” ambassador.
But also, what the critics of Christian Bale’s character glossed over (or didn’t know), was that 22 westerners were trapped in Nanking at that time. Fifteen of them under the leadership of John Rabe, a German, formed the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city, So, a westerner as a leading character in the movie was by no means a stretch.
One of the effects of this film is that it prompted me to learn more about what happened to the people of Nanking, and the circumstances surrounding the atrocity. From what I’ve read, I can tell it prompted a lot of other viewers to do the same. And that’s what a good historical movie should do.
No. No historical drama can capture the reality in its entirety. That’s not it’s job. It’s job is to let us, the viewers, know that such a thing happened, while at the same time helping us to understand that very real people had to endure, live, and die in utter horror. It was a story that needed to be told to the world, and, like the Holocaust, never forgotten, lest it be repeated.