“The Flowers of War” 《金陵十三钗》 — Sweet and Sour Socialism Exclusive Review
by Zuo Shou
2012 Feb 5
The Flowers of War
Directed by Zhang Yimou 张艺谋
Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni 倪妮, Tong Dawei 佟大为
Viewed 2011 December, in Chinese mainland theatre with English and Mandarin subtitles
“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 [sic] 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…civilians…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…
Rex Reed – “From the Withered Tree, ‘Flowers of War’ Bloom” (1)
Renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s latest offering, centering on the Second Sino-Japanese War invasion and genocide in Nanking (Nanjing), has been released amidst a burst of controversy. (I’ll address the controversies in a projected separate post’s analysis of the film’s defamation by certain corporate media.)
Zhang Yimou’s fictionalized take on the historic “Rape of Nanking” is an unconventional yet dramatically successful melding of the war genre and genocide melodrama. The film has been wrongly touted as an “epic” — perhaps due to the 140-minute length. What Yimou has rendered is actually a more minutely proportioned picture of resistance and redemption against the backdrop of an abhorrent episode of Japanese aggression in China, reflecting the scale of the novella which is the film’s basis.
I have had a qualified respect for Zhang Yimou, whom I’ve previously viewed as an intermittently brilliant film director whose cinematography at least is rarely less than formally perfect. My major criticism of his pre-2008 film work (with which I am only partially familiar), is that his films present a sophisticated superficial beauty somewhat alienated by an art-house chill: a lack of dramatic balance and warm humanity. His past films in particular had a glaring lack of comedic sense, with characters more like manipulated figures in an art gallery than dramatically living and breathing creatures. His wuxia action films, while framing characters exquisitely in martial motion, seemingly lacked the visceral “emotional content” that Bruce Lee strove for as an essential element of cinematic fighting in his own films.
Perhaps this is why Zhang’s true artistic masterpiece at this time is arguably not any film but the epic Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies, where his stadium-size visionary gifts were able to manifest in a sweeping gorgeousness almost wholly unencumbered by individual characterization.
After that gigantic presentation, Zhang changed up his cinematic style post-Olympics by radically scaling back the scope of his two subsequent films. The black comedy “A Simple Noodle Story” / aka “Legend of the 3 Guns” 《三枪拍案惊奇》 — released in the West as “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” — was a Sinicized remake of the Coen Brothers’ cinematic calling card “Blood Simple”. It met with negativity from foreign critics and underwhelmed the majority of Chinese audiences, who perhaps had sky-high expectations after Zhang’s stupendous Olympics triumph. I found it manifestly more memorable, and funnier, than its minor source material and enjoyed seeing Zhang work against expectations.
He followed that up with 2010’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree”, 《山楂树之恋》 which was a relatively twee but evocative “Love Story”-style tearjerker set in the Cultural Revolution. Given very good marks overall from the Chinese film-going public, it was basically ignored by Western critics, perhaps either through lack of international distribution or because it did not portray the Cultural Revolution period horribly enough to suit Western prejudicial tastes.
Zhang’s “The Flowers of War” production was internationally hyped as the most expensive Chinese film production in history (with an approximately $90 million budget) and interest was heightened domestically and abroad with the casting of Christian Bale as male lead (who is erroneously credited in some places as “the first Western actor to star in a Chinese film”.) Initially receiving mixed reviews from Chinese viewers, it’s come to be met with general approval by audiences (receiving an 8.1 rating out of 10 on the public Chinese website Mtime.com) and will end up as one of the two top grossing Chinese films of all time.
I was originally intending to skip the film for various reasons. I’m not a fan of Christian Bale. I was very impressed, yet harrowed, by Lv Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” which I had re-viewed recently, and I really didn’t want to cinematically relive the Rape of Nanking any time soon. I was also rather put off by the commercial of the film that was running on the Chinese TV film channel, in particular a short sequence that seemed to be showing the graphic rape of a young Chinese by a Japanese soldier. However, it was the slew of derogatory news articles and reviews from Western sources coinciding with the release of the film in China, and Bale’s subsequent ill-considered personal publicity stunt orchestrated with CNN regarding a US-government-supported Chinese “activist” under house arrest, which made me want to see what all the fuss was about.
What I discovered was a wartime tale focused on sacrifice and martyrdom that, contrary to expectations, worked exceedingly well as it generated consistent dramatic energy through utilizing a rich spectrum of human response to atrocity. I found one its strengths to be a dynamic freshness that came from the risks Zhang took in pushing the dramatic credibility of the characters to extremes, and in bringing a sophisticated theatricality to the proceedings that has become almost extinct in this age of increasingly de-humanized blockbusters.
The battle scenes between the invading Japanese and the guerrilla-style resistance by remnants of the Chinese Nationalist soldiers in Nanjing which commence the film were extremely thrilling and showed the technical expertise of the (presumably expensive) foreign component of the crew; the sound design of these sequences was particularly outstanding. Featured in these scenes is the stoic and brave Tong Dawei, whose heroism elevates him to the level of a kind of Chinese Sampson.
Bale carries off his role well as a traumatized alcoholic scoundrel whose inner wellsprings of redemption are catalyzed by Japanese aggression against schoolgirls holed up in the tenuous refuge of a Nanking cathedral. Elsewhere I’ve read his character being defined as the film’s “Western Identification figure”; which is not untrue but also not a comprehensive definition. It should be noted that he is not “the hero” of the film, which is a complaint of those who justly dislike the cinematic stereotype of a single-handed “Western savior” of hapless foreigners (of which Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s List” is an apotheosis), although Bale’s character’s behavior is, at times, heroic.
The real “heros” are actually “heroines” in the film — the 13 prostitutes alluded to in the film’s Chinese title who, for the sake of repaying a moral debt, stand to suffer a fate worse than a “fate worse than death” at the hands of some despicable Japanese. Zhang claimed that a fresh aspect he wanted to bring to the oft-told (in China) story of the Nanjing Massacre is a female perspective, and it’s to his credit that he does this without the phony “Girl Power” posing that often passes for feminism in Western culture today, and which would be anachronistic anyway.
Zhang Yimou is famous for introducing previous unknowns in his films that go on to major film careers, the so-called “Mou girls”. So it’s with anticipation that one is presented with Ni Ni, who plays Yu Mo, the prostitutes’ leader. Despite being saddled with the need for her character to speak in broken English, newcomer Ni Ni is at least the dramatic equal of megastar Bale and radiates a poise, intelligence and sensual beauty that is undeniably impressive and promises an auspicious future in acting for her, particularly as she’s reportedly just in her early 20’s (I’d assumed from her demeanor that she was at least 10 years older).
The partial narrator of film is one of the plighted schoolgirls, typically framed as looking out of a cathedral’s stained-glass windows to the war-torn world outside, windows which are eventually pierced by Japanese bullets. She and her classmates represent inexperienced foils to Bale’s initial selfishness, the worldly, bawdy atmosphere of the diva-esque courtesans, and the rampaging amoral Japanese soldiers.
One of the ingenious things about the film is its sophisticated cinematic representation of sexuality, between the ugliness of rape, the attraction-repulsion of the sex trade, and essential human love. In particular Zhang is deploying realistic depictions of sexuality alongside elements of cinematically poetic neo-Freudian sexuality that has been lost in movies since Luis Buñuel passed on, for in “The Flowers of War” the virginal and post-virginal become creatively transposed. This is part of the success of the film, whereby the stereotypically dichotomous (some might say “virgin-whore”, although I don’t know if that’s an exclusively Western construct) male-originated mentality is obliterated and perhaps the epidemic sexual trauma of the Rape of Nanking can witness some healing through artistic creativity.
I have yet to find a critic who pointed out a particularly brilliant part of the film’s dramatization, which is the subtle contrast of two kinds of martyrs: the cathedral set evokes the passive martyrdom of Christ, who legendarily redeems humanity; the Christian ‘sanctuary’ of Nanjing is background to the ultimate fate of the hookers, whose (off-screen) martyrdom is contrastingly active; i.e. all 13 of them resolve to face death at the hands of the Japanese…armed. Note that both Christ’s and the Nanjing martyrs’ dramas happen in the context of imperial occupation…
The film is not without flaws. After some brilliant moments and the high gear of the initial street combat sequences, the film’s drama settles down in the cathedral and becomes a little set-bound, although never less than compelling on multiple levels. The combat sequences are so exciting and vividly realized, but are basically wrapped up less than one-half into the film. This left me wishing there was more “War” and a bit less “Flowers”. There’s also a sequence about a couple of prostitutes venturing out of the relative sanctuary of the cathedral on a foolhardy mission that is as stupid as any similar scenario from a slasher movie, and was a good excuse to go to the WC (the equivalent of looking away from the screen, perhaps). It’s also a bit of a head-scratcher as to where the huge budget went to; while the production design of a desolated Nanjing is never less than convincing, the comparatively large amount of time spent in the cathedral set leads one to assume the salary of Bale and the foreign technical staff contributions, particularly for the battle special effects, constituted a huge portion of the production cost.
However, these individual criticisms do not undermine the copious rewards for the viewer of the film. I had previously considered Lv’s “City of Life and Death” as the unsurpassable filmic representation of the Nanjing Massacre. However, in retrospect, that film’s intellectual art-house style of black and white bleakness and catalogue of horrors, however artfully presented, is signally lacking emotional catharsis — which mutes the characters’ acts of humanity and sacrifice. What Zhang has presented is more pitched to the masses; a blazingly unique and maturely heart-felt perspective of the Nanjing Massacre which dramatically amplifies the humanity in contrast to the inhumanity.
Zhang has said that his film is ultimately about peace, and I think it has much to teach us in light of serial genocides (usually overtly or indirectly sponsored by the US) which have continued globally since World War II, despite whitewashings and historical falsifications that linger and are unconsciously woven into the social fabric of the Western world and its client states. In some ways it holds up a exposing mirror to the ordeals of civilians which are the outcome of horrific wars of the 21st Century.
But mainly “The Flowers of War” is a brilliant symbolic testament to the Chinese victory over the Japanese in the 20th Century. Through the thrills and tears elicited by the art of Zhang and his cast, it’s shown that victims and survivors can turn the devastating and shameful experiences of wars of aggression into the blooming of a more sublime destiny. The Chinese can — perhaps they have — overcome the Nanjing Massacre. Though there was and is unbearable and unforgettable mass suffering at the hands of foreign aggressors, victory has come through the deep human love that conquers evil through acts of resistance and martyrdom. The future of that exponentially tragic historic incident is now: the New China which is the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Nanking Massacre, and the peace enjoyed by current (and hopefully future) generations of Chinese.
This film has literally not been out of my thoughts since I have seen it, in a way that is quite unprecedented in a life of cinema-going. In contemplating it I have not ceased to discern new perspectives and facets to the work. I think this is the definition of a classic. From my perspective it’s at least Zhang’s best film yet.