The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.


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Friday, March 23, 2012

"The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗" - by Zhang Yimou

I was one of the bloggers invited by omy blog club for the movie screening  for "The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗" on 19 March 2012 at the Shaw Preview Theatre @ Shaw House Orchard.

"The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗" is 2011 Chinese historical drama war film directed by Director Zhang Yimou, starring Christian BaleNi Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Tong Dawei, Atsuro Watabe,Shigeo Kobayashi and Cao Kefan. The film is based on the novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing, by Geling Yan.  It proved to be both a heart warming & heart retching experience.

The movie is set in Nanjing the then Capital of China in 1937, during the "Rape of Nanjing", the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War, with the movie opening with Japanese troops opening fire & pursuing fleeing Chinese civilians among them 3 convent school girls who sought to return to the refuge of Winchester Cathedral headed by Father Ingleman. The movie is narrated and seen through the eyes of Meng Shu Juan, one of the surviving convent school girls who lived to tell the this tale. 

Meng Shu Juan ( played by Zhang Xin Yi, the narrator and one of the surviving convent school girl)
American mortician John Miller (played by "Batman" Christian Bale who made a full circle in his Zhang Yimou debut after landing his first movie about China in the Empire of the Sun made when he was just 13 years old) was tasked to embalm the resident priest  of Wincester Cathedral Father Ingleman who had passed away. He arrived amid the rubble,  and the dead bodies lined up on his way to the cathedral, and amazingly survived the bayonet stabbing by the Japanese soldier. 

John Miller (Christian Bale)

John Miller was greeted by George Chen  - the sole surviving boy caretaker of the cathedral (an adopted son of Father Ingleman), the only brave one left, responsible for the safety of the 12 convent school girls housed in the cathedral.

George Chen (Huang Tianyuan)

Along came a group of 14 courtesans from the  Qin Huai River Brothel,  arriving at the Winchester Cathedral to seek protection from the gunfire & bombing, with the belief that the Japanese soldiers dare not attack foreigners in the cathedral. The courtesans took refuge in the cathedral's cellar right beneath the kitchen table top.

Yu Mo is the leading top courtesan among the group having been raped by her stepfather since she was 13 years old, and sold into the brothel. She too like the narrator school girl Shu - used to be a convent girl for 6 years, before she was force into prostitution against her will.

Yu Mo ( Ni Ni )

The mercenary American mortician John Miller, who feared for his own life, originally struggles with the dilemma of staying & leaving Nanking, and eventually gives in to his feelings of responsibility to protect the teenage convent schoolgirls. He dressed himself in Father Ingleman’s priestly robes and poses as the cathedral's new resident priest "Father John". 

Mortician John Miller as Priest Father John (Christian Bale) 

Japanese soldiers invaded the cathedral looking for girls to rape. The heart retching moments were when Major Li  ( played by Tong DaWei who acted as Fan Bing Bing's husband in Lost in Beijing) , the sole survivor of Chinese troops single handedly tackled the Japanese soldiers by depositing bombs at strategic sites around the debris near the cathedral  and aim & shot the bombs when the Japanese soldiers were in the vicinity. Unfortunately he too fell victim to the grenade attack by the Japanese soldiers, and was discovered, his limbs badly blown up by the grenade. But he sacrificed himself & made a suicide jump and triggered off a series of bombs attached to him by strings, in the process killing the Japanese soldiers.

Major Li ( Tong Da Wei)

Before this suicide bid, Major Li had picked up a seriously injured boy soldier from Pu Sheng and left him in the care of the courtesans. Before the boy's death, two courtesans Lan & Dou went back to the abandoned Qin Huai River brothel in an attempt to retrieve the strings for the pipa, and ear rings, but were pursued by the Japanese soldiers. One was shot to death, the other was caught, raped & later stabbed to death with the bayonet.

With the help of Chinese collaborator Mr. Meng (Kefan), who is the father of the narrator of this story Shu , "Father John" (John Miller)  starts to repair the convent's broken truck in case there should be an opportunity to bring the girls out of Nanjing. Meanwhile George retrieve old nails from abandon shoes for John Miller to make wine carton boxes.

Japanese Colonel Hasegawa (Watabe) arrives & appears to give the assurance that he will protect the convent by stationing guards at the entrance & exit doors of the cathedral. Colonel Hasegawa was actually protecting the girls from being raped before the Japanese victory celebrations, with the evil intent of reserving them for the Japanese Officers present at the victory celebrations. He gave John Miller an official invite for the school girls to attend the Japanese victory celebrations. 

Colonel Hasegawa (Watabe) 
Sensing that this invite was not of any good intentions and totally with the ultimate aim of deflowering the girls, John Miller declines. Kato sounded out that it is an order that the girls must be ready to be picked up the following day. The Japanese soldiers count the convent school girls and included one of the courtesans (who has strayed from the cellar looking for her pet kitten), totalling 13.

Knowing for a fact that they are likely to suffer rape & torture under the hands of the Japanese soldiers, the 12 convent school girls plotted a mass suicide pact together by assembling at the top of the cathedral that night.

Just before  they were to jump, John Miller  & the 12 remaining courtesans arrived at the top of the cathedral stairway to prevent the convent school girls from making that fatal jump. 
Yu Mo volunteered to take Shu's place, and the rest of the courtesans one by one volunteered to take the place of the convent girls. 
Everything now seem to fall into place, it was as if the courtesans took refuge at the cathedral there for the purpose of sacrificing themselves for the sake of the convent girls, and John Miller was there for a purpose to give all the courtesans a complete makeover to make they look like 13 year olds once more. Due to lack of proper tools, John Miller improvise by using charcoal heat on comb & scissors to straighten the hair ends of the courtesans after cutting their hair locks away. 

But there were only 12 courtesans because two - Lan & Dou died at the hands of the Japanese Soldiers and there were supposedly to be 13 schoolgirls, they were short of one replacement. 

George Chen the boy caretaker adopted son of the late Father Ingleman volunteered to take the place of the remaining missing headcount. John Miller had to make a wig out of the hair locks he had salvaged from the courtesans for George Chen to make the disguise more real. 

Because the courtesans were more matured and had bigger developed chests, they had to divide the curtain fabric to make into linen cloth to wrap around their chest to hold it tight in order to fit into the school uniforms. 

Soon the Japanese soldiers arrived to escort the girls to the celebration event. As the "girls" board the army truck one by one, John Miller hands them each a farewell gift. 

Right after the courtesans & Japanese soldiers left, John Miller packed the convent school girls onto the repaired truck in the cathedral, with wooden benches to cover and wooden crates to further camouflage them. 

They were successful in passing through the road block check point after John Miller presented the soldiers with several crates of wine. 


The plot is great and the movie though 2 hrs & 20 mins long, had the story unfold so smoothly that you hardly feel the movie was long. The story is essentially a tale of Sacrifice - how a group of courtesans, though lowly due to their profession and oft looked down on by others, had the altruistic courage to give themselves up to probable rape & violation at the hands of the ruthless Japanese soldiers to protect the innocence & purity of the convent school girls and to save their lives. Apart from portraying the courtesans as heroines in this movie, there were 4 major male leads : Major Li, John Miller, Mr Meng (father of Shu), javascript:void(0)George Chen , each of them played a key role in the survival of the convent school girls.

Major Li in his heroic wit applied in his combat strategy enabled more Japanese soldiers to perish, eventually  sacrifice his own life using it as a suicide bomb to kill more of the enemy.

John Miller with his make -up  talents & skills as a mortician help to transform the beautiful courtesans into innocent school girls again, taking away years off their face, in their bid to fool the Japanese.

Mr Meng though considered a Chinese traitor in his capacity as translator working for the Japanese is indeed key in supplying the tools to repair the truck, and the pass for them to cross the road block, and in the end paid with his own life as well, regretly denied a proper burial as John Miller had to ferry the girls out as soon as possible out of Nanking.

George Chen sacrifice himself in going in disguise as school girl number 13 to make the number count complete. 

In the end the movie exudes hope just as John Miller rides out the truck with the schoolgirls safely on the truck unhurt, that indeed all that sacrifice by the men & women is all that worth it. 

Some of the poignant moments in the movie that left an impact - 
1.     Killing scenes where the Japanese soldiers thrust their bayonets into the bodies of the Chinese are indeed gruesome, & brutal and so real that it really brings tears of sadness to my eyes.
2.     The schoolgirls plot a mass suicide pact at the library, their gathering at the top of the cathedral,
3.     Scenes where the courtesan tore off the curtains to tighten their chests, brings tears of joy to my eyes as well. 
4.     Major Li's blood dripping down the top of the tower he took refuge in, with his limbs covered in blood due to the grenade attack, and his eventual jump down the tower landing.
Director Zhang Yimou uses all this subtle moments to tear at the heartstrings  of his viewers to bring out the compassion in them. Great scenes,  lively acting skills, and amazing blending of the movie despite it being spoken on 3 different languages. 

I give this movie Rating below : 8.87 / 10 

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