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.

Wednesday at the movies

I hope your week is going well. I had an afternoon to myself, so I saw a movie my wife would pass on – “Vice.” The movie defines the Vics Presidency of Dick Cheney as one where he had more control of the country than his boss.

Christian Bale plays Cheney quite well to the extent it is hard to believe that is Bale underneath the weight gain and loss of hair. The movie is similar in style to “The Big Short,” so it has several asides to explain things. Amy Adams is highly commendable as his wife Lynne Cheney. I would give it a thumbs up, but I must confess it is a little unnerving.

Last year, we caught a few other movies that are also getting some Oscar buzz. Our favorite movie is “Green Book.” Viggp Mortenson plays a chauffeur hired as security to transport around the pre-Civil Rights era South an African-American concert pianist played by Mahershala Ali.

We also saw “Bohemian Rhapsody” about the life of Freddie Mercury and Queen. Rami Malek plays Mercury and Gwilym Lee plays the talented guitarist Brian May. It is quite entertaining and worth a look if only to learn more about Mercury and see the behind the scenes interplay of the band.

“A Star is Born,” is my favorite of the two versions of the same movie I have seen. Bradley Cooper brings a great deal to the role of the aging rock star with demons. Lady Gaga is sensational in her first acting role and her scenes on stage with Cooper are moving.

We also saw “First Man” where Ryan Gosling plays astronaut Neil Armstrong. The movie is good, but it does not get quite the buzz as the others. Armstrong was a duty-bound and sober man, so playing him straight-up does not offer a lot of drama outside of the challenge of the mission.

Finally, we saw the movie “Black Klansman” about the true story of Ron Stalworth, an African-American policeman who joined the KKK. Stalworth is admirably played by John David Washington. Adam Driver plays his Jewish white partner who attends the meetings as Stalworth’s avatar. It is a moving story with a brief history lesson that is unfortunately still alive today.

What movies have you seen that you rank highly? What do you think of any of the above?