New film from China on the horrors of the “Rape of Nanking”

Movie Review

“The Flowers of War”

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Starring Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tong Dawei

145 minutes, rated R (war violence and sexual assault)

In Mandarin and English (with English subtitles)

BEIJING — I went with two expat friends of mine, one from Scotland and one from Northern Ireland, to watch the new Zhang Yimou movie “Flowers of War” at a small cinema in Wudaokou (university district of Beijing). It is the first Chinese feature film with a Western star (English actor Christian Bale, whom I had thought incorrectly was American).

It is about 40 percent English and 60 percent Mandarin (with Chinese and English subtitles).

The film takes place during the fascist Japanese occupation of Nanqing (known to history as the “Rape of Nanking”) and employs quite vivid imagery to drive home the horrors of war.

Christian Bale plays a heavy-drinking American mortician stuck in a monastery in Nanqing during the Japanese onslaught. Circumstances basically require him to “become a priest” as he develops a genuine concern for the fate of Chinese refugees who have managed to flee to the convent for safety. The film abounds with counts of both petty individualism, and heroic sacrifice and solidarity; I’ll leave the reader to see the film for more specifics (I’m not a fan of spoilers).

All three of us thought it was a good movie, but definitely not a light, happy one, although there are some small moments of comic relief.

What the Japanese militarists did to China is a story that every Chinese person knows well, but, I think, not so much in the West. (Even less known in the West is the sickening ‘medical’ experiments, patterned after the Nazis, which Japan employed in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China….not mentioned in the film, but known by the Chinese people and worthy of note).

I don’t know what kind of distribution this film is getting in the U.S. (perhaps, even more interestingly, in Japan), but the U.S. and China were on the same side in this war, and the lead character is an American. So this film provides, I think, a good opportunity for Americans to familiarize ourselves with a very tragic period in Chinese and world, history. It has a profound influence on the sentiments and thinking of the Chinese people to this day.

As there is recent talk of Japan abandoning its traditional post-WWII pacifist policy, perhaps the timing of the film is propitious. If you get the chance to catch this film, I recommend it.

Photo: Still from film




Brad Janzen
Brad Janzen

Brad Janzen is teaching English in China.