‘The Flowers of War’ has overpowering scent of nationalism

Have no doubt. Director Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” is a propaganda movie where the Chinese are all heroic and the Japanese invaders are all despicable. We’ve seen this kind of war movie before, but haven’t audiences matured beyond the black and white stark morality?

The movie is based on Chinese writer Yan Geling’s novel “13 Flowers of Nanjing” and will have a limited release in Los Angeles and New York (opening 23 December for a limited run)  in order to qualify for the Academy Awards before reopening next year. With a large Chinese population and the newer Chinatown, you’d think it’d open up in the San Gabriel Valley, but you’ll have to travel out to WLA, and see it at the Nuart.

Yan Geling with Liu Heng wrote the screenplay which is in Chinese and English. “The Flowers of War” is one of the first Chinese-financed movies with a high profile English-language movie star. In this case, the star is Christian Bale, who was recently involved in an altercation in China as he attempted to meet with a dissident, Chen Guangcheng.

Remember,  Bale came to public attention when Steven Spielberg cast him as the 13-year-old protagonist in the 1987 “Empire of the Sun.”  The Welsh actor played an upper-middle-class English boy who becomes separated from his parents in Shanghai as the Japanese Imperial Army invades and he is imprisoned by the Japanese in an internment camp during World War II.

That movie featured more complex human relationships (Bale’s character Jim befriends a Japanese teenager ) than “The Flowers of War.”

Set on 13 December 1937, “The Flowers of War” takes on a mystical air with children running through the fog with an air of desperation.  The narrator is a young girl, Shu (Zhang Xinyi), and she and her classmates are running back to the sanctuary of a Christian church, the Winchester Cathedral. The pursuers are the lustful Japanese army and the flight of the girls and one boy is aided by the remnants of the Nanjing Army led by Major Li (Tong Dawai).

Bale’s character, John Miller, is also heading toward the cathedral. He’s a mortician and the cathedral’s priest has died. John meets up with the girls and they reach the cathedral which has a large compound encircled by high solid walls and a wood gate. With the priest dead, his body blown away by a bomb, and the cook, runaway with the food, the children are alone–a dozen girls and a one orphan boy, George Chen (Huang Tianyuan).  You can see where this is heading?

John is not a good man, yet. He is a mercenary at heart and his scenes with the young girls comes across as a bit creepy. John isn’t the only opportunist searching for sanctuary. A group of high-class prostitutes also force their way into the compound. They are glamorous, beautifully coiffed and made-up as if they were just taking an evening stroll through the bombed and burned city, stepping elegantly over the corpses.

John is delighted with these ladies of questionable virtue and takes a particular interest in the haughtiest, and the formerly most sought after whore, the aloof and beautiful Yu Mo (Ni Ni).

John is searching for money. The ladies are hoping he’ll be able to use his Western face to get them out of Nanjing. They take over the basement. John remains upstairs in the late father’s room, getting drunk. When the Japanese break in and attempt to rape the students, he at first cowers in an armoire, but eventually John emerges, dressed as a priest and attempts to bluff his way past the Japanese. The Japanese aren’t quite convinced, but the noble Major Li picks a few soldiers off and the soldiers retreat to capture the sniper.

The character development of the adults is shaky. John’s English dialogue seems unnatural and even after the initial creepiness of John’s money-grubbing, grasping character wears off, there’s still something queasy about the juxtaposition between the nostalgic sensuousness of the inner sanctum of the women’s world of lingerie and laughter in the basement and the death and grittiness of war. The situation will tug at your heartstrings, but still the transformation from drunken mercenary to conscientious “father” isn’t convincing.

The girls are temporarily “safe” when a good (a stiff Atsuro Watanabe) Japanese officer assures Father John that order has come to Nanjing and the Colonel posts soldiers to “protect” the girls–keeping them in. Yet under orders, the colonel “invites” the girls and not their guardian to a party where it seems assured they will be raped and then killed.

There are some other troubling cultural problems. Were daughters really valued that much in China, or just ones who were in Christian schools. I wondered if instead of a father, a nun might not have been in charge of female students, but I’m not an expert in Christianity in China.

The term genocide is modern, coined in 1944 by a Polish Jewish legal scholar named Raphael Lemkin. Yet the concept of rape and pillage is not new. Consider the classic play “The Trojan Women.”  Written in 415 BC, the tragedy was written by Euripides and deals with the fate of the noble women of Troy who are to be divided up as trophies and slaves.

Consider the genocide of the Native Americans under Manifest Destiny. What about the Aborigines of Australia and New Zealand? Consider the Armenian genocide, the European Holocaust, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.

Reading the list of genocides listed at The History Place, I wonder about the genocides that built the European imperial empires or why they are not considered genocides. Perhaps in the future they will.

The Rape of Nanjing is a horrific part of history, but were the Japanese really much worse than any other imperial army?  During the Boxer Rebellion, the Boxers didn’t rape women, but members of the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the United States) did. The Japanese were reportedly shocked at the Western troops and their behavior. The Russians and French were considered particularly appalling in their attitude toward women and the thousands rapes; some women and girls reported committed suicide to save themselves.

Japanese comfort women weren’t the only instances of forced sexual slavery. During World War I, German military forces opened brothels, reportedly dragging women and girls to the brothels. The Germans under the Nazis also used Jewish and non-Jewish women for forced sexual slavery for their troops. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Polish Army and the Soviet Army committed rapes.

In the aftermath of World War II, sexual violence and rape were not prosecuted at Nuremberg despite the widespread and organized system of the Nazis. At the Tokyo Trials, war rape was prosecuted.

Filmmakers once saw the Nazis as cartoonish embodiments of evil and that works for Indiana Jones which is just an adventure cartoon played out by live-action actors. Not all the Nazis were bad, particularly in China where John Rabe worked to save Chinese from the horrors.

This movie is undoubtedly the Chinese side of this incident with a heavy dose of exotic romanticism. What is the truth? Even the Chinese under Mao weren’t particularly interested in talking about the Nanjing Massacre of 1937.

The Nanjing Massacre oddly seems defined by a place. Where the Japanese better behaved in other areas of China? The Japanese, just as the Germans, were not all evil. While John Rabe risked his life wearing the swastika in China in 1937, similarly, in 1940 a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, then vice consul in Lithuania, worked to save Jews and non-Jews by writing visas.

Some of those bearing Sugihara signed visas ended up in China, mostly finding sanctuary in Shanghai. The Japanese government protected them despite German pressure to turn them over.

In 1937, Kiichiro Higuchi aided Jewish refugees crossing Russia into China and arranged for them to settle in Harbin or Shanghai or gave them exit visas.

Yet what about the status of women in Japan and China. There used to be a saying among the Japanese: You sell you sons to the army and your daughters to the Chinese. The Chinese prostituted Chinese women and women from other Asian countries, sending them as far as the United States.

If the Japanese weren’t all bad, remember Christians in China later suffered under the Chinese. Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China and many European and American Christian missionaries left. Chinese Christian churches were allowed to self-govern, but increased political pressure resulted in Christian worship being driven underground. Churches were destroyed. Christians were arrested, imprisoned and even tortured.

Then there’s the curious position of women in China today–supposed equals under communism, but under the one-child policy unwanted at birth but desirable as a bride due to a shortage of women. Consider that conundrum when watching the prostitutes sacrifice themselves to save the virginal school girls. For what end?  Remember Yan Geling also wrote “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.”

“Xiu Xiu” was banned in China. “The Flowers of War” is an expensive Chinese production and has already opened in China.  Yan Geling knows that sex sells, but as I haven’t read her book, I can’t say if the overpowering nationalism is part of her original theme along with the strict dichotomy between virgin and whore (even with a heart of gold).

What I feel is the lesson one can learn from the issues of the Rape of Nanjing is: You can’t expect your enemies to treat your women and children better than the worst way you treat your own. And instead of condemning the Japanese and their actions, we should examine the commonalities of war and how people–men, women and children are treated.

Instead of condemning the Japanese, we should condemn all warriors, soldiers and armies who raped and pillaged. Then, perhaps instead of studying war, we would start studying peace. As for “The Flowers of War” this is a manipulative tearjerker that depends upon stock characters. I longed to know more about Li. The lovely cinematography doesn’t make up for the contrived story that doesn’t attempt to bring depth to important issues.
“The Flowers of War” opens 23 December 2011 for one week. It will open to wider release nationwide next year.

The Flowers of War
(2:00 5:15) 8:30
Sub-Titled, Dolby Digital, One Week Only


  1. The key difference between the German and the Japanese is that Japanese still refuses to recognize, or admit, the atrocity of the Nanking Massacre on Dec. 13, 1937. Japanese history text-books have been highly altered about Japanese involvement of the WWII.


    • The key difference is that nations generally write their own histories. Germany has led the Europe into two so-called World Wars. German began its purge from within with such incidents such as the Night of Long Knives in the summer of 1934 and the imprisonment of German communists and other political dissidents in Dachau (1933-1938). And then the Nazis went for the German Jews, the German homosexuals and gypsies. It wasn’t until late 1937 that Hitler began his expansion plans.

      The Massacre at Nanjing did not take place in the nation of Japan. Japan has a unified textbook system. It is harder for a foreign nation to advocate change within another nation’s textbook than for members of that nation to do so. Consider how the history of Mongolia and Tibet are written by the Communists.

      To force another nation to accept one’s version of history is cultural imperialism. One should probably consider first how one’s own country rates in terms of historical textbooks. According to an article on HistoryTextbooks.org where the problems of American textbooks are “dumbing down” and “increasing content bias and distortion.” The latter is essentially what you are expressing is the problem with the Japanese textbooks.


  2. Major atrocities inflicted by the Japanese Imperialism in WWII:
    1. Sneak attack of Pearl Harbor – Over 2,000 Americans killed on Dec. 7, 1941.
    2. Massacre in Manila – Over 130,000 Filipinos killed, 1941 – 1942.
    3. Genocide in Singapore – Over 45,000 Singaporean Chinese (Hokkien decedents) buried alive.
    4. Starvation in Viet-Nam – Over 2,000,000 (2 millions) Vietnamese died of starvation as the the Japanese burnt the Vietnamese rice crops as fuel to run their wartime locomotive engines, 1943-1945.
    5. The LaHa airfield executions of Australians on February 9, 1943.
    6. Bangka Island massacre on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1942.
    7. The Parit Sulong massacre in Malaysia on January 22, 1942.
    8. Murder on Wake Island on January 12, 1943.
    9. The Port Blair massacres on March 23, 1942.
    10. Massacre onN Palawan, including 145 Americans killed on December 14, 1944.
    11. The Nanking(Nanjing) Massacre – Over 200,000 Chinese killed, and over 30,000 women including underage girls raped on Dec. 13, 1937.
    12. The Manchurian Slaughter – 1937 to 1945.
    13. The Cheribon atrocity in July 1945.
    The list can continue to go on and on endlessly…………………


    • Dear Mr. Winston:

      Just how do we define “sneak attack”? And when is it justifiable in war. Just last week, there was mention of a sneak attack in the movie “War Horse” and it was by the British cavalry on the Germans during World War I. Sometimes I hear the crossing of the Delaware to attack the Hessians on Christmas Day referred to as a sneak attack.

      Your list cannot, of course, go on endlessly since Japanese imperialism has a comparatively short history (1920s-1945) so is there any real need to provide of list of British atrocities in Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, Nigeria, South Africa, Basutoland, Rhodesia, Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, India, Burma, Malaysia, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand? Do we want to count just the first British Empire (1583-1783), the second (1783-1815) or the Imperial Century (1815-1914) or put them all together? How about the French colonial empire that included the invasion of Algeria and expanded to the modern nations of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo), and the east African coastal enclave of Djibouti (French Somaliland).

      The French army committed the My Trach Massacre in 1947 according to Wikipedia and probably more since aside from the Japanese occupation, the French controlled French Indochina from about 1887 to 1954. Consider the Vietnamese rebellions that had to be put down between 1885-1895, the Franco-Siamese war of 1893, and the first Indochina war.

      How about the massacres under American imperialism? There’s a long list in Wikipedia for Massacres of Native Americans.

      As for sneakiness…what about the way in which the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown? The manner in which Hawaii and California became U.S. territories and states is not without questions of morality and ethics.

      Remember,Japan wanted to remain a closed nation. The Americans forced it open using violence (just a decade before our own Civil War). Who taught the Japanese modern warfare? The British and the Americans.


  3. I was appalled reading this. If the author feels able to render a lengthy discourse on Nanking, perhaps a better than passing knowledge of the facts would have been worth seeking beforehand. There is a reason history records the atrocities of the Japanese as the Rape of Nanking. The reference encompases and refers to a great deal more than the physial rape of women, children and infants, horrific as those acts alone were. While there have in fact been countless acts of genocide throughout history, which continue to this day, these acts have varied in scale of brutality. No student of history could fail to miss the particular brutality of the Jaapanese in Nanking, where the military seizure of the city became quite secondary to the horrific acts of torture, rape and murder. This film did not slant events to make the Chinese appear all good and the Japanese all bad. The facts are well documented and recorded and speak for themselves. Perhaps the author here might consider availing themselves of a bit of those before trivializinng such a monstrous stain on huanity.


    • The point is not that it happened. We know that the Rape of Nanking happened. “This film did not slant events to make the Chinese appear all good and the Japanese all bad. The facts are well-documented and recorded and speak for themselves.” Yet you do not say what documented records you reference. It does no one any good to depict one side as all good and the other side as all bad. That prevents a better understanding of what war is.

      In the same year of the Rape of Nanking (1937), the killing and torture of Japanese POWs and Chinese civilians were photographed by a Swiss businessman named Tom Simmen. The Nationalist Chinese soldiers also committed executions by decapitation and shooting.

      Consider how many Chinese were killed by the Chinese themselves in their internal wars as does R.J. Rummel.

      The interpretation of rape as a part of military culture has been written about by Merril D. Smith and Susan Brownmiller. More recently it has been documented in a movie about U.S. troops.

      The point is that not all Japanese were bad and not all Chinese were good.

      The LA Times reviewer wrote: “But however terrible and real the threat of rape, the clumsy screenplay turns every Japanese soldier into a rampaging maniac, some of them screaming exultantly upon discovering virgins. The exception is commander Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), a soft-spoken man who appreciates music. The genteel colonel isn’t, however, above arranging for the convent girls to be delivered into the hands of his superiors, setting in motion a contrived series of climactic events that are nonetheless affecting because of their elemental power.”

      You only got to that if you went past the first paragraph which stated, “But when it comes to storytelling, Zhang Yimou’s 19th feature is decidedly backward-looking: A lavish period weepie set against the atrocities of the Nanking Massacre, “Flowers” abounds with well-worn movie archetypes and slathers on schmaltz.”

      The Hollywood Reporter reviewer Todd McCarthy wrote: “If Warner Bros. had made a film with this plot back in 1942, it would have made effective anti-Japanese propaganda and probably absorbing drama in the bargain. Today it just plays like hokum.”

      Writing for Indiewire, Anthony Kaufman called it “well, frankly, propagandistic and, yes, anti-Japanese.” He also wrote :”Nanking has been a frequent subject of Chinese cinema. Director Jiang Wen’s 2003 film “Devils on the Doorstep” and Lu Chuan’s 2009 film “City of Life and Death” both depict the horrors of the occupation, but they also attempt to depict a few of the Japanese with some emotional depth.”

      Compare the depiction of the Chinese soldiers here with the Korean film, “War of the Arrows.”

      There was a time when propaganda from a Communist country would have caused alarm. That you find it defensible in 2012 is very sad indeed.


  4. I feel angry rather than appalled reading this. The author still use Cold War mentality in 2012 is totally sad indeed. l’m a Chinese, and i’m not communist whom the author seems very hate for. Nanjing massacre is an ethnic trauma for every Chinese. Please note that, a massacre! why can’t we use “black and white stark morality”?
    I’m sorry for my offensive, but check your bias towards China!


    • I’m not sure that you totally comprehend the essay. Your comment seems to indicate that your English writing ability needs some work. There are some people who would like to see things in black and white even when the matters are yellow, however, between 1933 and 1945 there were many massacres and the Nanking Massacre was one of them. I think you misuse the concept of Cold War mentality as well. So instead of checking your bias, I’d ask you to check your English language skills.


  5. Old thread, but I can’t let your bullshit stand.

    Some things are black and white. The Nanjing massacre is one of those things. Any Japanese person who was there either participated or allowed it to happen. Who gives a fuck if some of them weren’t evil to the core? They stood still and let it happen anyway–they were still evil and the Chinese have no duty to portray them as being somehow misunderstood or secretly good. Some things are national shames, this is one of yours. If you weren’t a vile propagandist, you wouldn’t want to gloss over it. People like you are how society gets to the point where it allows these kind of things to happen.


    • Your logic convicts a person by nationality. If you believe that “Any Japanese person who was there either participated or allowed it to happen,” then you do not understand the justice system in a democracy and probably should not serve on a jury in the U.S.

      By your logic, you’re also saying that any German person who was in Germany, France, Austria or the Netherlands from about 1939 and on either participated or allowed the Jewish Holocaust? Or any American who was in the United States allowed racism and/or sexism to happen, particularly in the Deep South? That’s an interesting perspective of justice, but in America we supposedly believe in a person being innocent before being proven guilty and individual responsibility as opposed to collective guilt. Granted, that is the American ideal, and race often has been used to make generalizations of guilt in the past.

      Some things are black and white. Being in a city, place or country where a criminal act occurs, even during a time of war doesn’t instantly make one guilty or evil. The Chinese do in some cases recognize that there were shades of gray. For this reason, movies like “City of Life and Death” are much better than “The Flowers of War.” So you aren’t actually speaking for the Chinese since that movie was also made by the Chinese.

      If you can’t recognize that individuals are judged by individual actions and that shades of gray exist even during war (and often especially during war), you probably have problems understanding what propaganda is.

      You did confirm one thing: One shouldn’t assume that people attending or working at an institute like John Hopkins can differentiate between propaganda and balanced portrayals. You are, from your email address, proof that some people there cannot. At John Hopkins, you should have learned that name calling doesn’t really help one’s argument.

      By condemning all the Japanese in Nanking as being guilty and “evil” no matter what their actions or reactions (or even if they were in the military forces at all) you are more like the old racists of Jim Crow era Deep South (and even new racists anywhere).

      Further, to say “Some things are national shames and this is one of yours” makes no sense. I am not a nation and I do not represent one. Again, you make a blanket statement based on race.

      Allowing propaganda and supporting propaganda is not in my opinion a way of promoting peace or understanding.

      As I pointed out, other critics also recognized this movie as propaganda. You should also go and attack them although you would have to change your approach and you won’t be able to pull the race card.


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