The Flowers of War offers two distinct species of flowers One group consists of beautiful courtesans on the run, while the other encompasses cloistered schoolgirls who sing in the church choir and who deeply mourn the recent death of their Catholic priest. In the flowers of war, the main characters arethe schoolgirls and the prostitutes. Zhang Yimou compared and contrasted these two group of women in this film. He used costume, makeup, actions and symbolisms to differentiate these two groups of women.
Prostitutes were dressed in bright colors, wore a lot of make-up and acted flamboyantly while the schoolgirls wore plain clothes, no makeup and acted properly. The schoolgirls lived on the main floor of the church while the prostitutes lived in cellar to symbolize the higher social status of the schoolgirls. Zhang Yimou also wanted to show the positive sides of the prostitutes. In the film, he showed how prostitutes were not cold and heartless as society thought. They could be as patriotic as any women and even sacrificed themselves to protect the young girls.
The Flowers of War alternates between scenes of intense wartime brutality and sentimental dramatic moments. The savagery inflicted upon the Chinese in 1937 by invading Japanese troops during the historical atrocity known as The Rape of Nanking is graphically portrayed. THE FLOWERS OF WAR is often repellent and sometimes touching. It presents aconstantly shifting perspective — from horrific battle and rape scenes to sentimental episodes of romance, self-sacrifice, and redemption. On the surface THE FLOWERS OF WAR is a story of redemption.
Miller arrives on the scene as a chancer and a drunkard, looking to swipe some cash from the cathedral and get out of Nanking as quickly as he can. But when faced with the horrors of the Japanese invasion, and seemingly the only beacon of hope for a group of innocent schoolgirls and fallen women he eventually finds his true calling and, in doing so, also saves himself, in a deeply spiritual sense. The prostitutes are also given a chance to atone for their sinful lives, but divulging exactly how would spoil too much of the story.
Suffice to say that the young students represent the innocence and purity of women, of humanity, and also of China, which must be preserved. The Rape of Nanjing is a historical event that continues to play a role in Sino-Japanese relations. Whenever the Japanese government reviews or changes its educational curriculum, its treatment of the sacking of Nanjing (or Nanking as it was spelled then) is heavily scrutinized, as well as its account of the way Japanese soldiers treated the women of Korea during their occupation.
The Flowers of War begins with the fall of Nanjing and its ensuing violence. The story is centered on how three worlds collide. The world of John Miller (played by Christian Bale) is that of an American mortician who is in Nanjing to bury the priest of a Roman Catholic cathedral. He arrives to find that theres no money to pay for his services. When he arrives he is confronted by a group of young girls who are students at the cathedral. These young girls are stuck in Nanjing because the father of one of the girls promised to get them out of the city on a boat and then failed to deliver.
They are protected only by the walls of the church, which is supposed to be a safe haven under the security umbrella of Western powers. Soon after John arrives, a group of infamous prostitutes force themselves onto the church grounds. These prostitutes have a mystique, being known as sophisticated women of high societydespite the negative connotations of their trade. Their lifestyle is antithetical to the chaste and religious life led by the young girls, and immediately they begin to step on each others toes.
John, on the other hand, we see a picture of redemption and of conversion. His about-face from drunkard to protector of the defenseless in a matter of minutes is unbelievable and quite a jolt for the audience. Nonetheless we still view him as our flawed hero. But ultimately the hero/heroines are the prostitutes. We are internally geared to view the apex of heroism as Christ-like sacrifice more specifically, of substitutionary sacrifice with its cruciform archetype.
In taking the place of the girls, the prostitutes were hauled into trucks and faced sexual assault to the point of death. The Flowers Of War tells the story of a group of young Catholic girls trapped in their convent during the Rape of Nanjing at the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War. A mortician from the United States, John Miller (played, surprisingly, by Christian Bale) stumbles upon the convent, posing as a Priest to protect the girls, whilst offering shelter to a group of flamboyant prostitutes from Nanjings red light district.
As Japanese forces conquer the city, Miller vows to get the girls out of Nanjing before they are all killed. The plot sounds a tad ridiculous and I was wary of investing time in it, but Yimous war epic makes for fascinating and compelling viewing. The Flowers of War is emotionally powerful, waving a flicker of hope to keep spirits high amid all the horror. This seems almost unavoidable in a film where the line of good and evil is so clearly defined.
The Chinese women are flowers beautiful, delicate, sometimes thorny yet vulnerable and the Japanese men are generally represented as a group of war-mongering soldiers, who treat their raping, killing and pillaging like a game of cat and mouse. The Flowers of War features breathtaking visuals, straying into magic realism, with beautiful stained glass window lighting contrasting against the dull mire of a war-torn Nanking.
Zhang Yimous vivid storytelling is somewhat surreal, bejeweled with precious movie moments, ranging from melodramatic and contrived to resonant and gripping. Despite its nationalistic, melodramatic and brutal tendencies, The Flowers of War is a beautiful, powerful and captivating war drama. Its an oxymoron for war and peace, love and hate and life and death that attracts and repels its audience in a minefield of contrasting themes and emotions, making it a beautiful, disturbing and cathartic kaleidoscope of a film experience.