And then there’s the other recent ejection from my Top Ten of 2011 list, The Flowers of War. It’s hard to say why the film was seemingly thrown to the wolves by its lack of marketing and bypassed by moviegoers. Yimou does have a bit of international cache after directing such huge hits as Hero, with Jet Li, and House of Flying Daggers. It’s true that Flowers isn’t chock full of the kind of artful fight sequences as both of those films, but it’s no tedious snoozefest, either. Perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that the film is about the rape of Nanking, and features prostitutes, invading soldiers, and young girls at a convent, and the tag line “Want a little rape with your Rape?” probably wouldn’t have sold too many tickets.
Flowers also got a lot of flack for its portrayal of the Japanese as two-dimensional monsters, which is unfair. It’s not like every film about the holocaust should be obligated to have incredibly humanizing portrayals of the Nazis. The fact of the matter is that these events happened, and they were a horrible tragedy. Every race, every nation, and every people is capable of great atrocities and evil, and over the course of history no one has been completely innocent. But ultimately, it’s a constant choice. The best way to prevent such terrible choices in the future is for us to continue to study history and understand each other and our commonalities until we realize we have more in common than not, and no reason to persecute each other. But we can’t change the past or the things that have already happened, and there’s no reason that we should forget the extent of what happened in Nanking, that 200,000-300,00 civilian men, women, and children were murdered by soldiers of the Imperialist Japanese Army, and at least 20,000 women were raped, including infants and the elderly. Or that often times the Japanese searched door-to-door for young women, gang-raped them, and then killed them immediately afterwards.
Flowers has also received a little critical drubbing for placing a white Westerner at the center of the story. But it’s kind of a silly criticism considering how little of a hero John Miller, played here by Christian Bale, is. Miller has been sent to a church in Nanking to help with the burial of many of the dead. But the entire city is in wreckage, and Miller is quickly running for his own life. When Miller reaches the church, he finds the single priest there dead, leaving behind a group of young female students and one young male assistant, George. The church has largely been left alone by the invading Japanese, even more so than any local refuges or safety zones. Miller is a coward through and through, and since he’s made the trip he’s determined to loot the church coffers for his fees before he leaves. But a group of local prostitutes also make their way to the church to hide from the Japanese, and soon Miller is posing as a priest to protect both groups of women. Yet he’s never truly made to look heroic, and even when he’s accepted that he must rise out of his alcoholic stupor, he’s mired in guilt and shame and has no qualms about admitting what a wretch he is.
It seems likely that the character of John Miller is based on German businessman John Rabe, who used his credentials as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact to try to appeal to the Japanese forces in his role as President of the Nanking Safety Zone. He witnessed the soldiers periodically coming into the safety zone to remove hundreds of Chinese civilians at a time to rape and murder them, and ultimately helped save 200,000-250,000 Chinese citizens. By relocating the character of Miller to an isolated church and focusing more on the two groups of women hiding there, the presence of Miller may give Western audiences an entry point into the story, but his cowardice and his lessened leadership role certainly stop him far short of being the film’s hero. He’s simply the objective eyes through which the story is told, through which we can feel the full extent of the futile powerlessness of the situation, and recognize the bravery of the Chinese women.
No, the heroes of the film are the prostitutes, led by Ni Nin as Yu Mo, and the small band of ragtag Chinese that keep fighting the Japanese despite the odds. Major Li and his men hold off the Japanese infantry as long as they can, and the sequence in which Li single-handedly battles a squad of Japanese soldiers with some well placed bombs and a sniper rifle sits squarely at the center of the film as a testament to the heroics of the Chinese army. It’s gorgeously shot with some incredible cinematography, and helps get the action out of the church’s interiors and open up the scale and scope of the film.
The cast is uniformly excellent and the performances are emotionally powerful and resonant. While it’s true that some of the movie is difficult to watch, and there are a couple of short, graphic scenes of murder and rape, the historical context really demands it. The film isn’t going to be able to capture the full horror of what happened without going there, and when it does, it does so briefly. Much more of the film is spent hiding out in the church, waiting for the Japanese to come, and waiting for them to return. Yimou as a director is the complete package; he works well with actors, has an incredibly visual sense and flair for color, and a strong sense of physical staging. All of this comes together in Flowers, and he captures not only the immediate physical atrocities of war, but the larger and more destructive force of a group mass divorced from any sense of personal or moral responsibility and operating without any sense of humanity and hiding behind its bureaucracy. More importantly, amidst all of this, Yimou captures the true power of the human spirit and the small yet tangible differences an unrelenting resolve can make even in the face of utter defeat and seeming hopelessness.