The Flowers of War

Hey guys, watch this.

So I usually don’t watch (nor do I like) war movies. But seriously, ‘Flowers of War’ made me feel like, I just had to keep watching, at first just a little bit, and then more after every minute. It is just too beautiful, firstly from all those appealing dresses and pretty faces; but of course – it’s a movie about wars and not about fancy lives – all the details were amazingly beautiful. I don’t have a lot of background knowledge about the Nanking massacre, so I guess in some ways it gets easier for me not to be biased in any aspects prior to watching, and easier to explore the fates of the characters, but in anyway, it’s really easy to be hooked into watching this movie, so please set aside some quiet time for yourself if you ever decide to watch it.

The movie opened with the scene showing how the Japanese took over Nanking – which was pretty inevitable, judging from how much better they were equipped and supported, and how they swiftly moved from streets to streets eradicating virtually every single living thing. It’s surprising how one of those supposedly cliché details to depict war moved me so much – it was when a Chinese soldier was hit by a bamboo basket. Hey, it’s just a bamboo basket, not a concrete thing, not made from metal, not even a weapon, and it hit right in his face – and I was like, ‘ouch, that’s got to hurt’, and really how sad it was to be struck down by just a simple thing like that. Maybe war is the same. Maybe it started with some simple stories that might actually exist, or might be made up – and from there, it destroyed such many souls.

Okay I know war is bad. And if you do not ever want to see another movie about how bad it is, it would still be worth your time watching another one like this. The movie is told under the perspective of people I would consider special: An American mortician, a teenaged Catholic Chinese girl, a prostitute, and of course, a Chinese soldier. The story revolves around a seemingly safe place – a Catholic church in the dying city of Nanking, which is not a popular background for a war movie in Asia. And from there we saw one of the most beautiful acts humans were capable of doing.

I guess it would be hard for me to forger the scene when John Miller (Christian Bale) showed up after hiding in the priest’s closet, trying to use his words to protect the little girls, and then hit by the Japanese soldiers. It is probably just in his sense and conscience to know that he is not likely to be attacked by the Japanese and that he somehow can pretend to be a priest to at least mitigate the consequences. But it was when he was actually hurt, and saw another little girl suffered what he would have, had he not been lucky, that it struck him that he somehow had to stay with the girls, to act like an actual priest and change the situation, and to live not just for himself. Lesson learned (the nth time): You never understand nor feel it until you experience it. Anyhow, the story was really smooth and reasonable – it’s not like Miller changed his mind right away – he needed some catalysts later on to get into work, but that was the starting point when the way things work started to reverse itself. The schoolgirls, from there, had a way out of the war.

Yu Mo – the female protagonist was equally unforgettable. She was dazzling when she had her fancy floral fitting dress and alluring, red-lip makeup on, showing off all her curves and tempting voice, but she was definitely most beautiful on the night she decided to go into the ‘war’ with the Japanese in place of the schoolgirls. She probably already knew that her clock was ticking; and it’s when the time for life was running out that people have the fiercest will to live. On that night, we didn’t see all those masks she put on anymore – we saw her with a bare face and plain uniform, under the dimmed light, laying out all her secrets and weaknesses, in love with the so-called priest John Miller. By giving up her life, she had saved another girl’s life, and also hers, by living for herself for once.

Following this scene, all other ‘prostitutes’ were shown looking amazing in the schoolgirl uniforms, chatting happily how for once in their lives they could be ‘clean’, and live as the intellectual class. It was sad how they were aware of their low social status and never could admit it, nor find any way out of it until the very end of their lives.

Another thing I love about Flowers of War is, it does not make me, or anyone else, I believe, hate Japanese soldiers. What matters in the movie, is not whether the Japanese were the cruel ones or the Chinese – those are no more than names to name 2 sides of the unjustified war, where people on any sides had to pay so much for meaningless things. It cost Colonel Hasegawa, and all other Japanese soldiers, the scene of their motherland, to come to a strange country and lose their souls to the cruel acts. When I heard all of them unintentionally sang their folklore song in unison, I understood this movie was not made as propaganda against the Japanese as in some criticism. On the other side of the war, it was even more heartbroken to see how many lives it cost to get the schoolgirls out of the warzone safely. Sure they were prostitutes’ lives, but who says they are less valuable than others? I was moved to tears when I saw Miller having to choose between the girls and the women, having to give up a bright boy, having to leave behind the same guy that helped him with the tools for escaping. It wasn’t just Miller’s decision, it was the decision made by all the people in the movie, and they had to pay so much because of what? A war. It was not even their war.

For those who always love happy-ending movies and refrain from watching so-called sad ones (like me), my advice is, just watch it, the ending is neither sad, nor depressing. It’s beautiful. And just like other Zhang Yimou’s movies, in which the plots were never special or complicated, all the small details in ‘Flowers of War’ will surely move you in a subtly beautiful way.

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