Written by: Liu Heng
Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Tong Daweim, Atsuro Watabe, Shigeo Kobayashi
Times of war reveal plenty about the individuals involved when examining their actions and decisions as power dynamics can shift at a moment’s notice. It opens up the door for abuses of power to become much more apparent and history has proven this to be the case time after time. Flowers of War examines a particularly brutal time in history when Japan invaded China and the horrible moral dilemma faced between a group of women, schoolgirls, an orphan, and a random American.
In 1937, with the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan attacked China’s capital city, Nanking, leaving many displaced and looking for safety. John Miller (Christian Bale), an American mortician, makes his way to a Catholic Church, which serves as a sanctuary from the violence along with 12 schoolgirls, and an orphan boy. They then get joined by 12 sex workers as they wait out for the terror outside the church to end.
Based on actual events during this tumultuous time in Chinese history, the transgressions that occurred in Nanking have received horrifying labels with “massacre” being one of the milder ones. A time where Japanese soldiers moved with impunity to a startling degree and this film seeks to tell the story of a small group just trying to survive and escape the terror of captivity under these soldiers. Similarly, Flowers of War brings forth an ethical dilemma no one in the story wants to face with good reason but gets forced upon them. It asks whether the lives of sex workers carry more value than schoolgirls. A harsh proposition and with the events actually occurring, the heartbreaking result rightfully does not provide an answer but rather a decision.
Centering the story is John Miller, an American, which could cause eye-rolls seeing as the story focuses on this man while plenty of Chinese characters could have taken center stage. In a sense, he becomes the guide for the audience to show the atrocities of what occurred during this unfortunate time of China’s history. I would place a hefty wager that not many individuals other than specific historians or natives of Southeast Asia probably know much of this incident based on the lack of international history being taught, especially in the United States. The whole issue of having John Miller as the focus gets skirted well enough in this feature seeing how it provides plenty of attention on the true heroes of the story, the women involved.
Having the Catholic Church serving as a place of sanctuary makes for quite the commentary as to a time where this held much ground. Serving as a mortician, the safety of all the individuals in the church comes down to Miller convincing the Japanese soldiers he’s actually a priest and deserves the decency and safety the sanctuary represents. A work of deceit in a place meant to be holy becomes the only safeguard, which says plenty about the role religion plays in these sort of situations. Even though what Miller does in pretending to be a priest may be sacrilege in the eyes of religious leaders, it becomes necessary to get out of this situation. No form of honesty will save them from this circumstance and all avenues must be utilized.
Christian Bale puts in a strong performance in one of his more underseen films. He shows what makes Miller such a flawed man at the beginning and what it takes to have him turn everything around for the good of the individuals around him. He becomes the rock of the story but the true stars are the sex workers, and specifically Yu Mo, portrayed by Ni Ni. As the de facto leader of the sex workers, she makes the big decisions on their behalf but also becomes the person to make waves with Miller. Serving as the woman who catches his attention from the very beginning, Ni Ni shows what makes this character alluring but also tragic in the decisions needing to be made. A strong and impactful performance on her part as she completely outshines everyone else.
Having never seen a Zhang Yimou film in the past, his reputation certainly set him up with high expectations, and he certainly impressed with how he could take such a bleak story and add his directorial style to it. In the moments where the action heats up, he remains in complete control and handsomely presents everything in an impactful manner. Flowers of War comes with a narrative filled with carnage and inhumane actions done by soldiers, in particular, and Yimou manages to find the bright moments of humanity underneath it all. Some sequences will prove to be too much for some to handle but it demonstrates the reality of what occurred during this terrible moment in Chinese history and serves as a reminder to never forget.