The Flowers of War – a movie that belies its criticism

I have written recently about the wonderful video store in my city that continues on as a non-profit with its 30,000 plus movies. Recently, a movie that caught my attention from previews is “The Flowers of War,” with Christian Bale, a Chinese actress named Ni Ni and a mostly Chinese and Japanese cast. The movie was written by Geling Yan and Heng Liu based on Geling’s fictional story the “Flowers of Nanjing,” which was based on the diary of a missionary named Minnie Vautrin during the 1937 Sino-Japanese War.

Per IMDb, “An American mortician, John Miller (Bale), arrives in Nanjing in order to bury the foreign head priest of a convent for Catholic girls, just after the city was bombed and invaded by the Japanese forces. A short time after his arrival at the convent, a group of flamboyant prostitutes from the local red-light district find their way to the compound looking for shelter, as foreigners and foreign institutions seem to be left alone by the marauding Japanese soldiers.

While the prostitutes hide out in the cellar, Miller struggles with and finally gives in to his feelings of responsibility to protect the teenage schoolgirls, and poses as the convent’s priest when the compound is repeatedly visited by Japanese soldiers looking for girls to rape. With the help of Chinese collaborator Mr. Meng (Kefan), who is the father of one of the girls, he starts to repair the convent’s truck in case there should be an opportunity to bring the girls out of Nanjing.”

The author and screenwriters pushed back on criticism the movie was anti-Japanese as that was not their intent. This may be a reason it did not get the foreign film accolades it otherwise deserved. The Japanese soldiers overran the city during a war and some of the soldiers took advantage of others. But, the movie is much more than that context. The movie offers a compelling story of disparate groups who learn their preconceived notions of one another can be melted away through mutual beneficial interaction. It offers a story of a western man who finds his better nature in the strangest of places. As I make these observations, I am doing my best not to give away the story.

The movie was directed by Zhang Yimou and also starred Tong Danei as a Chinese major who survived to help the convent early on and Atsuro Watabi as a Japanese colonel who loved music and apologized for the actions of some soldiers offering some temporary protections while he could. The story is narrated by Ling, one the girls in the convent played by Doudou Zhang. A young boy named George (played by Huang Tianyuan), who helped the priest and now Miller, plays the conscience of the movie.

The movie is in English for the interactions between Miller and George, the young students, and Yu Mo, the prostitute played by Ni Ni. Yu Mo had been a young school girl like these girls before she was raped and forced into being a prostitute. Her evolving relationship with Miller is a key part of the movie. The other parts of the movie are in Chinese and Japanese with good subtitles. The Japanese colonel also speaks English to Miller.

My wife and I enjoyed the movie. It is funny, of the four movies we rented, the ones with the highest critical ratings did not lend themselves to the highest enjoyment level.

14 thoughts on “The Flowers of War – a movie that belies its criticism

    • David, agreed. We actually stopped watching the most acclaimed movie we rented. I did finish it later, but it was the worst of the four. The ones we liked best only had one or two people we recognized by name. Keith

  1. I think this is a good example that you will always see the things you want to see. Or in other words, the way you are defines how you look at everything. You see so much more in that movie than those who claim it was an anti-Japanese movie.

  2. I saw the movie some years ago and though I don’t remember much about it now I know I enjoyed it, and thought the criticism was stupid. Any WW2 film could be accused of being anti-German or anti-Japanese, that’s just a fact of their reflecting history, as perceived from one side. I don’t recall similar accusations being levelled at Pearl Harbour.

    • Clive, well said. Only a very few have been more even handed, and usually it is only a few scenes. The hard truth is civilians are unfortunately casualties in the machinations of old men playing war with people’s lives. The women and a couple of males honored for their heroics in this film are noteworthy. Keith

  3. Although I have not seen this particular film, it is hard to see how any film concerning the events in Nanjing can portray the Japanese troops in anything other than a negative way. The death toll estimates vary between 50,000 to 300,000, the numbers of injuries, beating and rapes have never truly been settled on.
    Although in the history of the world such sacking of a city is not unusual if one is going to produce a film on events in Nanjing during 1937-38, anything else other than the inclusion of the brutality even as a backdrop is a travesty and would detract from the efforts of the central characters.
    As part of their training Japanese troops were indoctrinated and brutalised to the extent that would make even the most toughest American military drill instructor pale, small wonder the events in Nanjing, and other locations took place between 1937 & 1945.

    • Roger, you raise good historical points. The Japanese soldiers were trained to fight to the death, which made the WWII Pacific campaign even more brutal. This mindset is what you reference and may have carried over to other harsh treatment. But, any true look at a conquering army will not paint them in the best of lights, this includes some of the western armies especially in the US with respect to the genocide of Native Americans. Magnanimous and gracious conquerors are the exception not the rule. Keith

      • I must admit Keith the only one which springs to mind was McArthur’s arguably ‘benevolent’ shogun-like administration in the years following the American Occupation of Japan, which is ironic.
        The allied treatment of Germany and the P.O.Ws was harsher.
        War and the aftermath is rarely kind to the conquered.

      • Roger, good example. I would add Ulysses Grant letting the Confederate soldiers take their weapons home after Lee’s surrender. Keith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.