Brutality & Beauty in “Flowers of War”

I have been debating for a while now whether I actually wanted to discuss this particular film in my column. Since my primary goal in this section is to present thought-out suggestions rather than review films as they are released, I try to select ones I think can be enjoyed and accessed by many. “The Flowers of War” (2011) is one of the most powerful films I have seen, and although I am someone who normally enjoys watching favorite movies on a constant rotation, I am unlikely to ever watch it again.  This is a forewarning of the film’s unflinchingly brutal depictions of the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War, but for those who are willing and able to brave through the darkness it is, despite some moments of less-than-perfect dialogue, an emotional experience that will not easily leave you. 

The film, directed/produced by the critically acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, was selected as China’s official entry for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film Category as well as nominated for a Golden Globe; however, it did receive very mixed reviews among critics. Christian Bale stars in his second depiction of the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, the first time being his breakout performance at the age of 12 in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” (1987)—also a great film. I am quite an admirer of Bale’s work, but it could be said that his presence in “Flowers” somewhat overpowered the story, as well as the film’s predominately newcomer cast, and at times seemed more like a means of attracting international recognition. That said, he gave an admittedly compelling performance as John Miller, a rather crass and uncaring American mortician who, upon getting caught up in a foreign war, proves that the unexpected, ordinary man has the potential to be a hero. 

As the Chinese army is forced to fall back, Miller, hired to take care of a recently deceased priest, takes refuge with a group of convent schoolgirls and the young boy looking after them in a cathedral. They are then joined by a group of prostitutes also seeking safety, whom the girls regard with great disdain. All brought together, the worthless fool who doesn’t belong, the sinfully beautiful, and the virtuous embodiments of innocence struggle to survive the horrors of war. 

It becomes a story about redefining honor and heroism, for there is more than one kind of hero that is realized as everyone struggles and makes great sacrifices to ensure the protection and ultimate escape of the young convent girls. There’s the last remaining Chinese soldier watching over the cathedral, the perceived temptresses already bound for hell, and the unfeeling foreigner who makes his living off of death. In a time and place of total destruction and unbearable violence, innocence and pure beauty are still valued above all and by all, even a Japanese colonel, who weeps at the sound of young voices singing. It’s about how some things in life, like war, have the ability to bring out both the absolute ugliest and most beautiful aspects of human nature. 

By the time I had finished watching the film my emotional response had become a physical one. I felt almost sick from all the violence, not just the visualization of it but the tangible noise I could feel moving through my body.  But the tragic and unconventional beauty of these characters and their struggles to preserve goodness and innocence through such despairing darkness profoundly moved me. It’s a darkness no one should ever have to live through, but it is someone’s, in fact many someones’, reality.  And if this is what some people are actually forced to endure, then shouldn’t I, as someone lucky enough to happen to be in my sheltered circumstances, at least be able to spend two hours watching it on a screen, two hours of facing what I could pretend doesn’t exist because it’s not my reality, two hours of concentrating solely on how much I care that it is someone’s reality? I can’t change the fact that it is, but I can at least recognize it and remember to make the most of the life I am lucky enough to have, to make sure there is enough beauty in the world to balance out its brutality.