The Flowers of War: Christian Bale and the making of a hero

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Today, for my all-to-close-to-Christmas birthday, my hubby took me on a date. We saw the new and somewhat controversial Zhang Yi Mou directed “The Flowers of War,” starring Christian Bale.

For those of you who haven’t been following the controversy involving Mr. Bale, the movie is a period piece set during 1937’s Rape of Nanjing. Since it’s a war film, and especially since it is a Chinese-made film about the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, it naturally involves a lot of violence and, although the camera never focuses directly on it, rape. That’s to be expected, you’ve had fair warning and should know what you’re getting into if you choose to watch this movie. And I think if you are a laowai living in China, you should choose to see it. More about why in a bit. What you’ll not need to worry about is the language of the film: it’s in Chinese, sometimes in the local Nanjinghua, but it has terrific English subtitles.

The film’s been accused of being a propaganda piece made by the Chinese government, and I can understand why those accusations were made. It’s in some ways your typical Chinese war movie: Chinese soldiers = brave and heroic, Japanese soldiers = scum of the earth. To be honest though, if you’ve seen any of the historical photos of what happened in Nanjing, or read some of the Chinese survivors accounts, you might start to understand why the film shows the events that it does.

Yes, it’s very one-sided, but I think it’s understandable considering the atrocities that really did occur in Nanjing, and in China’s current political climate it would be unheard of to release a movie that didn’t portray the Japanese in that way. I think it’s unfortunate that this kind of movie is often the only viewpoint on the Japanese that many Chinese are exposed to. I, of course, do not condone the sort of xenophobic knee-jerk hatred that spews from my students’ mouths every time the subject of Japan comes up, but I really don’t think you can expect anything else out of this kind of movie — made in China, at this time. Watching this movie may least help shed a bit of light on why those reactions happen.

I went into the movie expecting all that. Actually when I first heard that it was a propaganda piece about Nanjing, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see it at all. But then Christian Bale went and decided to try to visit Chen Guangcheng in Linyi, and I suddenly decided it might be worth a watch. You know how, in advertising, they say any publicity is good publicity? I know the Chinese government is not terribly pleased about Bale’s little stunt, but I bet it will increase box office for The Flowers of War! A lot of people are saying that what Bale did was little more than a publicity stunt, and are criticizing CNN for their role in it, but I have to say, I really respect what he tried to do.

Bale came into China knowing basically nothing about the country. The New Yorker states:

“He told reporters that he knew little of the history before starting work on the picture, and, when asked on the red carpet about whether the film was over the top, he blinked, “I haven’t ever considered that question before.”

His character in the movie knew nothing in the beginning, either. He struggled to speak even a few words of Chinese, and he was the stereotypical money-grubbing, drunk, womanizing laowai that I cringe to be associated with. Watching that part of the movie was frustrating. I wanted to shout at Christian for agreeing to such a negative portrayal of us laowai… did he even know that he was playing into all the stereotypes? Sure, he could go back to Hollywood and all that but the rest of us have to live here and get all the dirty looks and negative associations.

But Christian Bale decided to learn something about the country he was in. Not only did he learn something, he decided to try to do something about it. He decided to try to visit Chen Guangcheng, his new personal hero. Hopefully you’ve heard of Chen Guangcheng and how he is being held under house arrest in Linyi. After reading his biography in several posts at Seeing Red in China, he’s become one of my heroes too. Bale caused a ton of controversy, but I think his heart was in the right place. He was trying to use his celebrity to make a difference the way so many of his film personas (Batman?) do. How many of us use the tiny bit of laowai celebrity we have to do something to make a difference?

In Flowers of War, (slight spoiler alert) Bale’s character also has a change of heart, steps up and does something heroic to redeem himself. In spite of my low expectations going in, I kind of ended up liking this movie, because it takes people, real, flawed people from the dregs of society and gives them a chance to do something good, something heroic, something that will make a real and lasting difference.

I don’t know if Christian Bale was really changed. I wonder whether he will continue with his activism, whether his concern about issues in China will lead him to continue doing heroic and perhaps foolish stunts or whether he will go back to his movie star life and forget about life in Linyi, but I have to say, I think he did something worthwhile with his time here, both with the movie and with Chen Guangcheng, and he’s made at least one new fan here in Hainan.

Talk on The Flowers of War: Christian Bale and the making of a hero


14 Comments
  1. Christian Bale may have been to China before. At the young age of eleven or twelve, he starred in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, which listed Shanghai as one of the filming locations, although most of the filming was done in UK. And Shanghai back in 1986/87 was a very different place.

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  3. To some extent it should be considered as a American movie, a hero saves a lot of people used his magic skills and braveness. The director Zhang Yimou is just want to get award from American.

  4. “Yes, it’s very one-sided, but I think it’s understandable considering the atrocities that really did occur in Nanjing, and in China’s current political climate it would be unheard of to release a movie that didn’t portray the Japanese in that way.”

    Like, for example, Lu Chuan’s film “City of Life and Death”/《南京!南京!》(which, for some reason, I remembered being called “Nanking! Nanking!” in English), which caused a bit of controversy for daring to portray [gasp] a Japanese soldier [BIG GASP] as actually human? I think “unheard of” is perhaps too strong a term to use here. “Most unusual”, perhaps.

    • Profile photo of Nicki

      Ah, I didn’t see that one. Worth watching?

      There was a small bit of humanity from one of the Japanese commanders in the Flowers of War. He apologized for the behavior of his soldiers, left bags of potatoes and posted guards for the protection of the convent girls. This is completely negated, however, by his actions later in the film.

      Was the humanely portrayed Japanese soldier from Nanking! Nanking! humane throughout the film?

      • Not so much “humane” as “human”, much like Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler in “Der Untergang”, which caused similar controversy. So, portrayed as a real person. A real person doing real evil, but still a real person. Some people don’t like being reminded that the Nazis and the Japanese soldiers were real people. My theory is that it reminds them that they were just like us, and that therefore we are just as capable of the same evil they did. It’s much easier to just hate monsters, but then of course, you’re no different from the monster you hate.

        And yes, “Nanking! Nanking!” is worth watching, and not just for the Japanese soldier portrayed as a real human (if not necessarily humane). There’s also the Good Nazi John Rabe, who, along with Minnie Vautrin and others set up the safety zone. And then, of course, there is the history, made even more brutal by reminding us that the Japanese soldiers were just as human as us and their victims. It’ll be even more worth watching when the translator who did the subtitles finally gets paid, though.

    • I concur, Nanking! Nanking is a MUCH better film. Honestly Flowers of War seems like a cheap shot meant to drive up nationalistic emotions with the most hamfisted cliches of “innocent little girls” vs “demonic rapist soldiers”. Is this film based on a true story..?

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  6. Im glad i find this discussion here, i just came back from the cinema (with my chinese girlfriend) and i am still in shock. And as we know, a problem shared is a problem halved…

    For background, i live in china since 2006, lived in nanjing for 3 years, speak the language, been to the massacre museum, read a lot on the subject, just that it is the first time i see a movie about it.

    Now, an interesting point of comparison:
    – i stood up twice to leave the cinema because i couldnt take how atrcious some visuakky charged were the scenes about rape. So if you ask me what is the first thing that i can comment about the movie, it is how obscenely and unnecarily visual it is about some of the atrocities that happened in that time, but…

    – my girlfriend (chinese she is) told me she though it was a beautiful movie, with a beautiful message about what good and noble things can happen in such times. When i asked about the visual depiction of all those excesses that made me feel sick, she says “no, big deal, we have lots of movies on the subject, and they are all same or even more explicit”

    So, my point i guess is:
    – strong movie, be absolutely ready to tolerate these disgusting, very strong passages if you want to watch it. In my case, the only reason i stayed in the theatre was my girl, otherwise i would have left after 45 minutes, first sexual offence scene
    – i’m still shocked that i cant say if it was one sided or not, but i guess i wouldnt expect history being revisited by a chinese director of a china sponsored movie…
    – question for another time is: would the government allow so in-your-face scenes if the movie was let’s say about Rwanda, or Sudan?

    Appreciate any other comment. As i said i am quite moved by this movie and the political context

  7. Copy it, past it and Google it. You can find true Japanese solders in China at the time in the pictures.

    見ろ!実は、日本兵は中国で礼儀正しく、皆から愛されていた。

  8. I liked this “reluctant hero” film set in Nanking. As a woman who taught in China, the oral histories of the systematic rape practiced by the Imperial Japanese Army reached my ears far too many times. If this film is a vehicle to make more people aware of these atrocities against woman (in particular) during war, more power to Zhang.

    Zhang does create the “honorable” Japanese soldier in the white-gloved music lover, but ultimately the officer too must follow command. It’s one of a beautiful pieces of situational irony that makes Zhang films so lasting, and the tension in the actors’ face makes evident the internal struggle of his officer character. What disturbs me as a viewer are the multiple roles that the sex workers play: They take on their role as “adults” to protect the children but ultimately it is their role as “survivor” from the violence of men–regardless of nationality–that gives them the strength to put their heads on the chopping block, so to speak.

    The violence for women (and to a lesser degree young men which Zhang also alludes to) is not only in war. Often times, it is very close to home.

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