Sunday, February 5, 2012

Drunken White Men, Kindhearted Whores and Bestial Japanese: Zhang Yimou’s "The Flowers of War"

Christian Bale and Ni Ni in Zhang Yimou's latest heavy-handed effort, The Flowers of War.
Were Zhang Yimou and the folks at SARFT really surprised when Zhang’s nationalistic, overly sentimental and cliché ridden latest film failed to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film last month? Admittedly the Academy Awards are no stranger to clichés or melodramatic content, but given The Flowers of War was up against A Separation by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi – by all accounts a beautifully understated drama – Zhang’s film was always facing an uphill battle. The Flowers of War is so heavy handed, and in parts frankly laughable, that I don't think it's at all surprising that it failed to even make the Oscars shortlist.

I was dubious from the moment I heard Zhang was working on a film about the Nanjing Massacre. There’s no doubt the seizure of China’s wartime capital in 1937 by the invading Japanese army, and subsequent systematic rape of the female population and execution of hundreds of thousands of residents, was one of the great war crimes of history. Unfortunately, however, this horrific incident is constantly harped upon by Chinese Communist Party propagandists to reinforce the notion that China needs a strong authoritarian leadership to resist foreign aggression. It’s also a handy device for directing attention from China’s home-grown atrocities. Given Zhang Yimou’s record of recent films that less-than-subtly affirm a worldview strictly in line with that of the Chinese Communist Party – from the necessity of authoritarian leadership to hold China together (Hero) to the tough-but-caring image of provincial party cadres (Not One Less) – I wasn’t confident Zhang was going to say anything new or challenging about the massacre. What I did expect was hordes of marauding Japanese beasts, heroic Chinese soldiers and endless suffering by defenceless Chinese civilians. I wasn’t disappointed.

The film opens with a group of school students – convent girls no less – running through the fog-shrouded ruins of Nanjing as the Japanese roll into the city. Their retreat into their convent is covered by a particularly manly squad of Chinese soldiers who manage to wipe out the entire unit of Japanese troops on the girls’ trail. The Chinese soldiers are paragons of fighting resistance to the end, and they are all eventually killed except for their officer, Major Li. He goes on to single handedly eliminate a second Japanese unit who turn up at the convent the next day to rape the girls, dying grandly in slow motion as he simultaneously pulls out the pins on a dozen or so grenades, thereby eliminating the last of the Japanese who have evaded his unerringly accurate bullets. With Chinese super-soldiers like these we’re left wondering how the Japanese were able to seize Nanjing in the first place.

Meanwhile a mortician in the form of Christian Bale arrives at the convent to prepare the local dead priest for burial. Bale spends the first half of the film enacting the stereotype of the stupid, drunken, lascivious white man in China. Until, of course, the brutality of the Japanese inspires a spiritual road to Damascus and he starts concocting plans to save the innocent schoolgirls. Oh, and in the meantime a group of gorgeously exotic prostitutes turn up seeking shelter, providing a sexy love interest in the form of Yu Mo (played by newcomer Ni Ni), the archetypal whore with a heart of gold.

Are you retching yet?

Predictably, the Japanese, almost to a man, are shrieking rampaging animals, with the exception of one laughably “cultured” officer who turns up at the convent and rather bizarrely sings a folk song about being homesick.

When the Japanese demand the presence of the school girls at a “party” to celebrate the city’s capture, we come to the crux of the film’s drama – which unfortunately isn’t very dramatic at all. With an almost equal number of convent girls and women of the night on the convent premises, it isn’t hard to guess the plan Bale and the prostitutes come up with to spare the pure young sisters from the lustful clutches of the Japanese. Yet the deception takes a painful 40 minutes or so to play out, with lashings of hand-wringing sentimentality and tears along the way, as well as a quick sex scene and some glimpses of female nudity to keep male viewers interested. It all ends very heroically with swelling choirs on the soundtrack to alert you to the spiritual grandeur of the sacrifice involved. Subtle this film is not.

Yu Mo (Ni Ni) and her band of kindhearted prostitutes in The Flowers of War.
U.S. audiences seem to concur with my dim view of Flowers, with Reuters describing its opening weekend in the States as a “belly flop.” The film reportedly took “an anaemic US $48,558”, which must be a big disappointment for its makers, considering it cost close to US $100 million to produce. Having said that, the film was the highest grossing domestic title in China last year, so it’s unlikely to lose money in the long run.

Commentator Lu Yiyi wrote a post for The Wall Street Journal last week accusing U.S. reviewers of anti-China bias and double standards in their accusations of the film’s demonisation and stereotyping of the Japanese. While she has a point about double standards – plenty of Hollywood films demonise non-Americans, and many of them have been applauded by U.S. critics – but her argument glosses over the fact that it’s not just the Japanese that are two-dimensional caricatures in The Flowers of War. There isn’t a single rounded character in the entire film.

As noted, Bale is the embodiment of the Chinese stereotype of the parasitic useless white foreigner in China (until he undergoes and very predictable change of heart), while the women in the film fall into two strict categories. The convent girls are the embodiment of Chinese female purity and innocence, while the prostitutes are exotic Madam Butterflies crossed with Suzie Wong, harbouring hearts of pure gold. And yes, the Japanese are all marauding rapists, except the officer who sings folksongs.

Lu angrily defends Chinese directors’ right to portray Japanese soldiers as monsters, given their atrocious actions during the war. Setting aside the domestic political reasons the CCP encourages such portrayals, it’s a misnomer to claim that portrayals that acknowledge brutality preclude rounded characters or psychological insights. Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), while a flawed film in many ways, springs to mind as a work that manages to explore the thinking of Japanese troops, and how their thinking led them to behave the way they did, without ever shying away from their savage brutality. It’s an example of the kind of reflective filmmaking that is completely lacking in China’s official Party-controlled industry. Similarly, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) looks at the emotional complexities of wartime loyalties and unflinchingly portrays Chinese collaboration with the Japanese army, while also clearly conveying the savagery of the occupation.

It’s also extremely disingenuous of Lu Yiyi to claim in her WSJ post that Flowers had nothing to do with the Chinese state because the money came from a Chinese bank. Apart from the fact that all Chinese banks are state owned, Lu must be aware that any official production in China – especially one of the size and scope of The Flowers of War – goes through a very rigorous censorship process which severely limits what filmmakers can and can’t say. The state has a huge influence over the content of any official production, irrespective of where the financing comes from.

Zhang Yimou spoke recently of a paucity of decent scripts in China’s official sector, and while he didn’t allude to the reasons, directors like Jia Zhangke and Stanley Kwan have been more forthcoming. Jia was quoted as saying in Shanghai last year, “The only reason that we cannot make genre movies is the barrier that censorship sets…This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety.” As reported here at Screening China, Stanley Kwan stated at a post-screening Q&A in Beijing in late 2010, “Now many Hong Kong directors come to the mainland. But they have to deal with a long list of banned topics – no scary films, no erotic films, no gay films. They just have to make the best of what’s left.” Even China's most commercially successful filmmaker of contemporary times, Feng Xiaogang, when asked if he was a master filmmaker at the time of Aftershock's release in 2010, replied sadly, “This is not an era that can produce masters. Because we face too many danger points. You can’t get too close to these danger points."

It’s no coincidence that the CCP condones so many films about the Nanjing Massacre and the Japanese War while banning so many other topics, including any depiction of the CCP’s own atrocities. The CCP covets greater cultural influence globally, but their main priority is ensuring that Chinese cultural products reinforce the Party’s worldview for domestic audiences. Chinese studio films these days may wrap their messages up in packages resembling a Hollywood product, but that doesn’t make them any less ideological. The not-so-subtle message at the heart of Flowers of War, and countless other TV series and movies made in China, is that if you have to hate someone, hate the Japanese, and be grateful contemporary China has a strong military dictatorship – sorry “People’s Government” – to keep the motherland safe from the outside world. This is why the CCP hated Lust, Caution so much – any drama that acknowledges shades of grey in its account of the war or the Japanese is considered heresy.

So why do commentators like Lu Yiyi spend their time jumping up and down about supposed anti-Chinese bias in foreign film reviewing, instead of looking at what China's filmmakers are saying about the situation in the Chinese industry? Lu could do a lot more to improve China's hand in the cultural stakes by speaking out against the censorship that has hamstrung the Chinese film industry for more than half a century. As the well-known Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou wrote late last year in China Daily – a publication that is hardly a bastion of anti-CCP commentary: "We have a censorship system so inane and so completely out of touch with reality that it is a miracle any good work survives."

In any case, it's really sad to see a filmmaker of Zhang Yimou’s former stature making such vacuous and predictable fare at the service of the country’s authoritarian masters. Zhang’s films of the 1980s and 90s were so original and cinematically imaginative it’s hard to believe it’s the same director who churns out titles like Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower and Flowers of War.

There’s a message here kids – sell your soul and your work begins to ring hollow.


  1. I love your review!!! I'm Asian but not of Chinese or Japanese descent and I think you're spot on... It's just another massive propaganda, very OTT... Love the title of this review too, very catchy :D

  2. Such a Beautifully done film, definitely heart breaking and tragic though.... I guess most of women any nationality would have intensive emotional respond to this film! It is also very this director's taste and style, in terms of the story and photography, It might be hard to break through in the U.S at this time though, considering a lot of Americans don't care much about the far east and what happened during WWII in China, They had their own battles with the Japanese during the time, and definitely would be hard for them to actually feel for the Chinese...