The Flowers of War

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The Flowers of War (simplified Chinese: 金陵十三钗; traditional Chinese: 金陵十三釵; pinyin: Jīnlíng Shísān Chāi) is a 2011 Hong Kong/Chinese historical drama war film based on a novella by Geling Yan, 13 Flowers of Nanjing, inspired by the diary of Minnie Vautrin. The story is set in Nanjing, China, during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in the Second Sino-Japanese War. A group of escapees, finding sanctuary in a church compound, try to survive the plight and persecution brought on by the violent invasion of the city.

Directed by Zhang Yimou


Until this day I still don't know what happened to the women of the Qin huai River. I never learned all of their names, and never saw them being taken away by the Japanese. So, I always imagine... I imagine myself standing by the large round window, watching them walk in once again.
  • Girl: [voiceover] After twenty days of continuous bombing, Nanking finally fell to the Japanese. It was December the 13th, 1937. I remember everyone was running that day, but no one could escape that heavy fog.
  • Shu: [voiceover] They were the famous women of the Qin Huai River. The myths surrounding them were as ancient as the city of Nanking..
  • Shu: [voiceover] Until this day I still don't know what happened to the women of the Qin Huai River. I never learned all of their names, and never saw them being taken away by the Japanese. So, I always imagine... I imagine myself standing by the large round window, watching them walk in once again.

John Miller[edit]

Stop! Stop! Stop! This is a house of the Lord! These are children! You are breaking the laws of man and of God! No soldiers here! You have no business being here! I am the priest! And I command you, in the name of the Father to leave now!
  • John Miller: Stop! Girls! Girls! Stop! Stop! Stop! This is a house of the Lord! These are children! You are breaking the laws of man and of God! No soldiers here! You have no business being here! I am the priest! And I command you, in the name of the Father to leave now! Girls, you come up here now! Girls, you come up here now! Come up these stairs, and stand behind me. You're honorable men, behave honorably!

Yu Mo[edit]

You know what? I was the best in my English class, but everyone used to mock me. They said I put on airs and graces and acted like I was the Queen of England.
  • Yu Mo: Even though you were a drunk bastard last night, what you did today makes you a hero.
  • Yu Mo: You know what? I was the best in my English class, but everyone used to mock me. They said I put on airs and graces and acted like I was the Queen of England.


Colonel Hasegawa: Esteemed Father, on behalf of all the officers, I would like to invite your church choir to perform and celebrate with us. This is the official invitation.
Shu: They are asking us to sing at a party tomorrow.
John Miller: This is a very kind invitation, Mr. Hasegawa. However, unfortunately, the children will not be able to attend.
Colonel Hasegawa: Why not?
John Miller: Sir, they're very young. I'm not sure that it is appropriate for them to attend an adults' party. As their guardian and protector, that's my responsibility. But we thank you very much.
Colonel Hasegawsa: I am sorry. This is an order from above. I cannot disobey.
John Miller: Sir. Please think about the girls. I can see that you are man of culture. Last time you played us a beautiful song, for people far from home. You missed the rivers and hills. Please consider that theirs have been destroyed,they have no home, nothing. They are living in hell. With this invitation, you are asking them to celebrate that. I know that you understand. With respect, sir, I cannot allow that. I think that is...I think that is brutal, sir.
Colonel Hasegawa: Please remember, tomorrow at four in the afternoon, a car will come to pick up the students. I am carrying out military orders.
John Brown: Mr. Hasegawa, you tell me what will happen at these celebrations. Mr. Hasegawa. You said you posted guards for our security. Have you been keeping these girls locked up until these celebrations? The children cannot go. Mr. Hasegawa. Mr. Hasegawa! The children cannot go! The children cannot go!

John Miller: I... lied to you as well. Your two friends who went for the pipa strings, they weren't shot. I'm sorry. I think you already knew.
Yu Mo: Yes. Sometimes, the truth is the last thing we need to hear.

Prostitute: Remember how the ancient poem describes us?
"Prostitutes never care about a falling nation,"
"they sing and dance while other are dying."
Prostitute 2: You are not so foolish after all. I'm impressed.
Prostitute: Mo just taught me those two lines. Of course we should remember the poem that criticizes us.

Prostitutes (singing): "I have a story,"
"and let me put it into song."
"I hope every one of you"
"can listen to me patiently."
"Allow me"
"to sing the legend
of the Qin Huai River,"
"slowly and passionately,"
"for each one of you."
"Ever since the ancient era,"
"the river has been flowing gracefully."
"It is the beauty of the South,"
"the elegance of Nanking."
"Walk in the famous Zhan Palace,"
"enjoy the spectacular architecture."
"Look at the Colony of Cranes"
"with water rippling all around."
"What a paradise this is."


About The Flowers of War[edit]

  • "The Flowers of War," a melodramatic tale of unlikely heroism set during the Japanese invasion of Nanking, is affecting at times, but finally feels overblown and heavy-handed. It's a disappointment from director Zhang Yimou ("Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern").
  • A dozen convent girls are hiding in the church, watched over by a young male ward (Huang Tianyuan). A reprobate American mortician (Christian Bale) arrives, and sticks around to drink up the church's wine supply and pocket whatever cash he can put his hands on. Also seeking refuge are a dozen or so rambunctious and colorfully clad hookers, including one (Ni Ni) who speaks fairly good English.
    The Bale character and the prostitutes are mostly played for robust humor - a somewhat risky strategy - until the sanctuary is invaded by Japanese troops intending to violate the young virgins (the hookers avoid notice, a little too easily, by hiding in the basement). Bale's mortician has dressed up as a priest, mainly as a lark, but shows unexpected mettle in trying to protect the girls.
  • There are moments of genuine emotion here, and Zhang powerfully underlines the horrors of this dreadful moment in history, but much of what happens feels cooked up, some of it plain silly. The characters' rising to the moral occasion should be deeply moving, but isn't really justified dramatically. It seems more like the triumph of sentimental movie conventions.
    The transformation of Bale's character is entirely predictable, and the monumental act of self-sacrifice at the climax strains credibility. And there are some dialogue clunkers. The film's grand emotions and a handful of remarkable sequences - Zhang is an undeniable talent - can't overcome these flaws.
  • The Flowers of War is ultimately an inspiring, stirring and unforgettable human drama in the face of a horrifying war. It is highly recommended.
  • One of the ancient ploys of the film industry is to make a film about non-white people and find a way, however convoluted, to tell it from the point of view of a white character. "The Help" (2011) is a recent example: The film is essentially about how poor, hard-working black maids in Mississippi empowered a young white woman to write a best-seller about them. "Glory" (1989) is about a Civil War regiment of black soldiers; the story is seen through the eyes of their white commander.
    One of the last places you'd expect to see this practice is in a Chinese film. But what else can we make of Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War"? It takes place during the Rape of Nanking (1937-38), one of the most horrifying atrocities in history, during which the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the Chinese capital city and slaughtered an estimated 300,000 civilians, usually raping the women first. It is one thing for civilians to die in the course of a war, and another for them to be hunted down and wiped out on a personal basis for the crime of their race.
    Now we have the first fiction film about this event by one of the leading Chinese directors, who contrives to tell it through the experiences of a drunken American mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale). This man finds himself in Nanking at the time, misses a chance to escape the city and ends up hiding out in a huge Catholic cathedral, which is theoretically neutral ground.
  • "The Flowers of War" is in many ways a good film, as we expect from Zhang Yimou ("Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern," "To Live"). It is handsomely photographed. Its exteriors were apparently shot on sets, including an impressive one for the cathedral and its surrounding grounds. Christian Bale grows tiresome as a drunk, but then straightens up and is an adequate hero, although lacking in depth and background. Yu Mo, the leader of the prostitutes, is played in a effective heart-of-gold way by Ni Ni. Huang Tianyuan is good as George, but there is never a danger of him stealing a scene.
    Now let me ask you: Can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell his story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?
  • It was at the moment when the maurading Japanese soldiers broke into a cathedral, tried to rape a bunch of innocent Chinese schoolgirls, and a lone Chinese rifleman across the way managed to get off a few shots directly through the church’s stained-glass windows, and into the neck of the Japanese attackers, that it became clear to me that director Zhang Yimou’s new epic about the 1937 Nanking massacre “The Flowers of War” is, well, frankly, propagandistic and, yes, anti-Japanese.
    Actor Christian Bale, who stars in the film as an American who comes to the aid of several trapped Chinese girls and courtesans, has recently defended the film, telling the BBC, “It’s far more a movie about human beings and the nature of human beings’ responses to crisis.” He added that the film discusses how a crisis “can reduce people to the most animalistic behaviour but also raise them up to the most honourable behaviour you could ever witness.”
  • Even the Times report highlights the fact that “the Japanese soldiers are presented as one-dimensional savages”, noting the sequence in which one gleefully shouts “We’ve got virgins” after finding the schoolgirlsl. In its lush, artful presentation of violence, the film also seems to relish in such bloody acts, whether as a way to marytr and sympthathize with the fallen Chinese or take joy in seeing the few Japanese get their due.
  • The movie reportedly cost $100 million to make. Some critics charge that the film is an expensive attempt on the part of the Chinese government to soften its image, but Bale is confident that Zhang wouldn't be interested in propaganda efforts.
  • Bale describes his character as a mechanically inclined jack-of-all-trades from the U.S., an escapee of the Dust Bowl who ends up working on cargo ships.
    "He's kind of a character who is accustomed to raucous and chaotic people around him. That's what he likes, that's where he finds his comfort," he says. "He's definitely pursuing excess with a vengeance — as a means, we find out later, to deal with pain."
  • ...a new dawn in China-Hollywood co-operation...this ambitious war film from Zhang Yimou is an attempt to turn the revolting aftermath of the 1937 Japanese assault on Nanjing into a globally friendly, putatively inspiring epic that also aims to underscore the US and China's geopolitical mutual respect."
  • As for Bale himself, he is enthusiastic enough in his role, alternating loucheness with dewy-eyed emoting, though there's an unavoidable feeling he's in a different movie to the rest of the cast. Bale specialises in a sort of coiled-spring ferocity, which is never far away from the surface, and doesn't always sit comfortably with the more balletic, formalised performances of the Chinese and Japanese actors.
    Be that as it may, Zhang pulls out lots of directorial stops: there are a number of bravura combat sequences (notably one in which a single Chinese soldier takes out an entire Japanese platoon), a gruesome scene outlining the (documented) nature of the Japanese sexual assaults on civilians, and tremendous handheld cinematography reflecting the girls' panic when the troops storm in. However, despite the energy and care with which each scene is set up, Zhang never quite manages to overcome the penned-in sense of the drama: despite occasional forays outside, most of the action remains churchbound. This wouldn't be a problem in itself – it just seems a little self-defeating in a war epic; the constant scurrying around and squabbling among the women characters doesn't help either, tending to distract from the larger picture.
    Be that as it may, the Nanjing massacre is still a running sore in China's 20th century history, and Zhang is brave to take it on. It's fair to say that something has been sacrificed in translation, the ponderous romance he offers to appeal to an international audience doesn't really do the historical record full justice. But in terms of focusing the world's attention on China's cinematic muscle, he does admirably.
  • That Bale, 37, would be working in a country where he didn't know the language, the sole foreigner on the set in a culture that didn't believe in coddling the crew with days off — there are no union protections there — wasn't going to dissuade him. He is a guy, after all, who dropped one third of his body weight for his role in 2004's "The Machinist."
  • Part of the reason he accepted the gig, though, was to shine a spotlight on an ugly period in history.
    "You have to let it in, but then you have to breathe it out again," he said, exhaling loudly. "So it doesn't destroy you."
    It was a much different experience than the three-week whirlwind he experienced in the country as a 13-year-old filming Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun." Now there he was, the veteran in an inexperienced cast of real Nanjing students that legendary director Zhang Yimou had recruited.
  • The Flowers of War is a big movie in every sense of the word, from its kinetic battle scenes to the beautiful photography and impressive performances from a mostly young and inexperienced cast."
  • ...a work of often garish dramatic flourishes yet undeniable emotional power, finding humor and heartbreak in a tale of unlikely heroism in close quarters.
  • What I wanted to stress in this story is the young girls, the virgins are the most final conquest of the conquerors, especially for the Japanese - you cannot call it a complete conquest unless you can conquer the enemy country's women. So the young girls coming of age are the most vulnerable and most desirable of the conquest... by protecting them I wanted to make the story more tragic and more beautiful.
  • No matter what wars or disasters happen in history, what surrounds these times is life, love, salvation and humanity. I hope those things are felt in this story. The human side of the story was more important to me than the background of the Nanjing massacre. Human nature, love and sacrifice – these are the things that are truly eternal. For me, the event is the historical background of the film. But the enduring question of the story is how the human spirit is expressed in wartime.[24]
  • There have been other recent movies about the invasion of Nanking so what was it about the novel or the story that made you interested in telling your own?
Zhang Yimou: I actually read the novel in 2007, the year before the Olympics, and I really liked it because it’s very different from the other movies. This is told from a 13-year-old girl’s perspective and a prostitute’s perspective. Because that perspective shows humanity, that’s what intrigued me to make the film. When I finished the novel, I had this imagery stuck in my head which was the last shot of the movie itself, which has the bombing and smoke as it’s background, but then you see a line of women emerging from this war zone and coming from inside the church, so that imagery was also the key that I made this movie.
  • CS: You’ve previously done historic war movies but you’ve brought artistic and cinematic beauty into those environments, which is not that common, but here you have World War II and a very difficult time in China’s history, so how were you still able to instill beauty into this situation?
Zhang: The script itself, because it’s from a 13-year-old girl’s perspective is very flexible. It could be anything in terms of all other movies about the past of Nanjing, everything is so big with so much violence, so I wanted the combination of both. I wanted to choose from a 13-year-old girl’s perspective’s moments so I was thinking if she was still living right now she’d probably be 90-something years old. If you asked her how she felt about wartime, most of the things would probably be a blur to her, but maybe a few moments of that experience were vivid and memorable, so it’s the same way I wanted to make the movie, through those moments. One small moment amidst the global scale to express this movie.
  • CS: Probably the hardest part about making this movie has to be the handling of the Japanese soldiers. Your previous films have had a huge audience in Japan, including “Curse of the Golden Flower,” so how do you handle the Japanese soldiers in a way that doesn’t alienate your Japanese audience.
Zhang: I’m also curious about that myself, how Japanese audiences will receive it, because the people who are Japanese on set as actors, they were all willing to come for this movie, putting the historical background aside and they came here for the story because it is a story based on humanity and about sacrifice and salvation so it was just a movie that it could be happening in any war setting but it happens to be this one, so everyone who worked on this film really just focused on the human side of the story but in terms of audiences, I’m curious myself. I don’t know what the outcome will be.
CS: It’s tough when you make a war movie because you have to be realistic and accurate to the times, but also have to be sympathetic to the fact it happened many many years ago. Do you have any idea what you might want to do next? Would it be another big movie or do you have any interest in doing another movie within this WWII setting? Or something contemporary and smaller?
  • Zhang said he was moved to cast Bale on the recommendation of Steven Spielberg. Bale starred in Spielberg's 1987 hit "Empire of the Sun," playing a young boy struggling to survive in Japanese-occupied China during World War II. (Bale, for his part, said he was "completely oblivious" to the connection between the two films when he committed to "Flowers." "It's a different lifetime for me," Bale said of "Empire of the Sun." "I barely remember that experience.")
    Zhang had seen only Bale's two Batman films and said he initially had doubts, from those viewings, about Bale's ability to play the Miller character. But when he arrived for a meeting at Bale's house and found books about the rape of Nanjing on his coffee table, he was convinced. "It showed he was serious about this, more serious than anyone else I talked to," Zhang said.
  • It’s already been reported that Zhang’s latest movie is the most expensive film in Chinese history, and while it includes much of the cinematic artistry that’s made the filmmaker famous throughout the world, it also has some of the sensibilities of Western war movies and wartime romance dramas. It’s also the most English we’ve seen in any films from Zhang, roughly 50%, which didn’t prevent it from becoming his 7th film put forward by China for Oscar consideration.

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