Flowers of War is set during the rape of Nanking and even if you know nothing about this period of history other than its name then you will still realise that this is not going to be an entirely comfortable film to watch. However, by concentrating on the interactions of a disparate group hiding from the rampaging Japanese army, this film manages to convey some of the horror of the situation without making it overwhelming and manages to occasionally lighten the mood as the relationships between the characters develop. Of course there is also a fair amount of tragedy and horror to this story as well.
Everything in this movie is wonderfully filmed and realised, from the battle sequences in the war torn and muddy streets of Nanking to the brightly coloured silks and fine jewellery of the prostitutes among the refugees.
The story follows John Miller, an American who seems to only be interested in money, drink and women. Miller finds himself trapped at a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Nanking as the Japanese are finalising their capture of the city. The priest is dead, that’s why Miller is at the Cathedral, he’s a mortician and the girls of the convent are without leader or protection. Miller seems only interested in getting paid for his job (which he can’t do because the body has been blown up by a Japanese shell), drinking and sleeping with one of the prostitutes who turn up looking for shelter.
The cathedral begins to fill up with refugees from the atrocities being committed outside including a number of beautiful and wildly inappropriately dressed prostitutes from the famous Nanking redlight district. After witnessing for himself the depravity of the invading Japanese, Miller starts to become less selfish and to risk everything to protect the people in the Cathedral.
The Japanese military command protects the girls of the convent from the marauding lower ranks but it soon becomes clear that their interest is not wholly noble either. Between them Miller and the prostitutes come up with a plan that might just save the girls from the Japanese soldiers.
As I watched the film, I felt that the actions of the Japanese soldiers were portrayed in a very one dimensional way. They are all intent on rape and murder and are barely under the control of their own command. They are particularly excited by the discovery of virgins in the form of the convent girls. Towards the end of the film, the girls are under the protection of a Japanese commander and are invited to sing at a celebration. The assumption of all the characters is that they will be raped and murdered at this event although this isn’t really borne out by the events we have seen in the film.
However, having read some more about the events in question the portrayals of behaviour and the fears of the characters appear to be founded in historical fact but not necessarily that well expressed in the film. Of course there is also a lot of argument about the actual events and a lot of both sides using various versions to demonise the other side. I don’t intend anything in this post to be any kind of political statement, merely a ramble about the events of this movie.