Caixin
May 02, 2012 11:43 AM

The Flowers of War

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"The Flowers of War" begins on December 13, 1937. A group of young convent girls are fleeing for their lives through a besieged Nanjing shrouded in mist. The first words to be heard are those of lead girl Shujuan; "Everybody was running that day but no one could escape the thick fog." It feels somewhat odd to have such a young actress reflect on events long before her lifetime yet her opening monologue succeeds in immediately setting a tense mood.

Along the way, the path of the convent girls intersects with that of a company of soldiers, a band of prostitutes and an American mortician. These unlikely allies are brought together by coincidence and by the violence of the on-going Nanjing massacre. Only once the survivors have all taken refuge within the walls of a catholic church does the narrative truly begin. It is a story that touches on the deepest and most universal themes of the human condition, those of life and death, of sacrifice and salvation.

The church, at first a safe haven, eventually succumbs to the outside aggressors. When this happens, circumstances mean that an ultimate choice has to be made about who to sacrifice and who to save, the prostitutes or the convent girls.

It is clear from the trailer that the marketing tactic is to allure viewers into theaters with allusions of eroticism. I can't help but feel that selling the movie on sex appeal is incredibly short sighted. This so dubbed "erotic nationalism" may be pandering to the tastes of the mass audience yet with such expectations they are likely to look for sexual motives where none were intended, selectively oversimplifying the story into one about "prostitutes saving virgins".

Much of the responsibility for the extreme interpretations of the movie by audience and critics lies with the moviemakers themselves, but the criticisms from feminists are not entirely fair. It is true that Zhang Yimou is fond of grandiose plots with strong male roles. However in this case, screenwriters Yan Gelin and Liu Heng worked hard to improve the gender balance. They tried not to frame the prostitutes as moral victims and instead portrayed their decision to sacrifice themselves to protect the convent girls not as an act of patriotism but as individual choices in a moment of desperation. Yet they barely succeeded in overcoming such traditional stereotypes.

Indeed, despite its efforts in setting a consistent backdrop for the finale, the movie fails to offer clear motives for many of the characters and hence their actions and ultimate choice seem too much like a deliberate plot device. This, in addition to overly dramatic scenes that somewhat clash with common sense weaken the story's credibility.

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