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 "The Flowers of War" (2011), new Zhang Yimou pic
Yi Lee
Posted: Jan 10 2012, 02:39 PM


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G'day everybody,

It's been about two weeks since I saw this at a private screening and I was wondering if anyone else has caught the new Zhang Yimou film starring Christian Bale set during the Nanking massacre of 1937? Based upon a 2005 Yan Geling novella entitled "The Thirteen Hairpins of Nanjing" (Jinling Shisan Chai), which can be finished in under two hours if one is reading at a snail's pace, there's been very little written about "Flowers" in English considering it's currently the biggest grossing film in China and has consistently beaten out Tsui Hark's 3D "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" for the top box office spot since both opened on the same day at the start of the 2011 Christmas holiday viewing season.

My own gut reaction is that it compares well to Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" (2009)--though "City" is probably the better, more artistically consistent of the two (I wonder how much of this has to do with Zhang's painterly use of color vs. Lu's clinical use of "classic" documentary black and white)--and will probably draw in a fair bit of arthouse attendance over here due to Bale's child actor performance in "Empire of the Sun" (1987) plus general Western (Orientalist?) fascination with all things geisha/courtesan/high class hooker-ish from the East--the "flowers" or "hairpins" in the title refer to thirteen such individuals.

I have a really tough time thinking critically about World War II movies set in China. I lived in Nanjing for three intellectually fruitful years in grad school and, being a Republican era specialist, am aware of the historical situation in the city and surrounding areas. I lived in the old diplomatic quarter of the former Nationalist capital, daily passing by the still standing villas of bygone government big-wigs and overseas officials posted there. I regularly strolled by the former Japanese embassy and novelist Pearl Buck's home on my way to my morning jog at Nanjing University's outdoor track before heading out for a few laps at their Olympic-sized swimming pool in the school's athletic complex (all of which was overlooked by the soaring Run Run Shaw building which housed the media studies department and the heavy hitters in social sciences.) Made regular monthly trips to Purple Mountain--home of Sun Yat-sen's grandiose mausoleum--in addition to the old Presidential Palace (also the HQ for the Taiping Rebels) and the Massacre Memorial itself. And let's not forget the so-called international zone of Nanking was also ground zero for the Cultural Revolution in post-liberation Nanjing; though the streets have been since repaved and shiny high-rises shoot towards the sky, my daily work routine started with me walking atop one of the bloodiest square miles on the face of the planet.

Given the above considerations, I found flowers remarkably restrained yet was troubled how beautiful--including the grit and grime--Zhang made it all appear. The pic looks terrific and considerably more money has been poured into it compared to "City of Life and Death." Lu, however, does a better job of evoking the stench of rotting corpses and human degradation taking place all around. Given that Yan's original novella throws out a scenario ripe for sitcom potential--a bunch of saucy courtesans and dowdy Catholic school girls get holed up in a cathedral being shelled by enemy fire while being watched over a slyly opportunistic American fox keeping the chicken coop--that Patrick Bateman/Bruce Wayne himself gets cast to play this role is just too rich(!)--I suppose one should just be thankful the thing didn't go totally off the rails. Tastefully done but considering how some things should never be given the "classy" treatment (e.g. family musical set in a holocaust concentration camp; stoner sex comedies about 9/11, Benny Hill music playing as people leap from the burning WTC in sped-up hilarity )...




***Kinda Big Spoiler***



this is the classiest movie you're ever going to see about child gang rape/murder. Yay? That the White Man pulls one over the squinty-eyed Japanese by switching them out with a bunch of hoary high end hookers in the end, that's okay 'cause "the children are the future." And whores aren't people.



***End Spoiler***




Worth seeking out for the strong female ensemble performances but at its' heart the movie asks audiences to swallow a pretty nasty proposition. And although this is substantially subdued compared to the real life crimes against humanity taking place in Nanjing during the horrific massacre (looking back at some of the actual Japanese war documents, I genuinely can't tell who allowed things to go to seed or what possessed the soldiers from enlisted to senior officers to go so totally apeshit with the random mass murdering and raping) , this one just feels wrong to me. Open-mouthed kissing your sister wrong. I guess that's not a problem for people born in a country with a one child policy. Moreover, English-speaking audiences can kind of ride the "Atonement" (2007) vibe given off by the picture (and short story's) discursive framing device.
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Steve Erickson
Posted: Jan 10 2012, 03:32 PM


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This played an Oscar-qualifying run in New York around Christmas, and it's returning for a longer one on Jan. 20th. I haven't been impressed by Zhang Yimou's late work, apart from HERO, but I plan to see it when it reopens.
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Yi Lee
Posted: Jan 10 2012, 05:27 PM


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Hey Steve (and everybody else),

If you liked "Hero" (2002) and Zhang working in that mode, I think you might find yourself pleasantly surprised with this one.

Out of curiosity, did Chen Kaige's wuxia-tinged revenge drama "The Sacrifice" (2010)--based on an ancient play titled "The Orphan of Zhao," one of the first Chinese plays ever adapted/translated into Western Romance languages--ever play in normal (non-museum, non-festival) retail movie theaters? Now that was a return to form unremarked in the press.

(To everybody): Gosh there's a chance this might make it to the local multiplex. This and the new [New] "Dragon Gate," which I'm dying to see because of all the old school personnel listed in the credits. That noted, I remember "City of Life and Death" being avoided by festival programmers and audiences at first given its harrowing subject matter. Zhang Yimou's going to be the beneficiary of some of the art cred Lu Chuan built up with his picture, but I'm afraid Zhang squanders a bit of it with this one. "Flowers" is just too polished--sort of like one of those Benetton adverts found in glossy fashion rags from the 1990s--and though one could easily invoke names like Theodore Adorno and whatnot, let me just say the pic doesn't sit well with me. It you find yourself thinking the same thing, don't pass on "City of Life and Death"--'cause that one's the real deal. Zhang's "Flowers," on the other hand, is a multiplex remix shot in the highest, def-est hi-def possible.
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Steve Erickson
Posted: Jan 10 2012, 07:11 PM


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I actually walked out on CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH when I saw it at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival. Have you read Shelly Kraicer's article on Lu Chuan in CINEMA SCOPE? It's been too long since I read it for me to do a good job of summarizing it here, and I don't think it's available on-line, but he expressed my misgivings about CITY quite well. I'm definitely not looking for a more sanitized depiction of the same subject matter, so from what you're saying, I think I'd like FLOWERS even less.
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Yi Lee
Posted: Jan 10 2012, 09:44 PM


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Hello Steve (and everybody else),

Is this the article of which you speak?

Shelly Kracier, "A Matter of Life and Death: Lu Chuan and Post-Zhuxuanlu Cinema," _Cinema Scope_ no. 41 on-line at:

http://cinema-scope.com/wordpress/web-arch...shelly-kraicer/

Oh how I love thee, Google.

I know Shelly along with Lisa Roosen-Runge. Despite not being a film scholar or a person with academical film interests, I've always found them really generous with their time. Continuing, his essay in _Cinema Scope_ concludes with the following line: "In true Hollywood fashion, ['City of Life and Death'] substitutes spectacle for thought, mythology for history, and ideology for reality." If that cutesy aphorism describes your initial apprehension towards Lu's movie, then yes, it would be advisable to avoid the new Zhang Yimou film later this month.

(To everybody): That selfsame concluding line reveals a passing familiarity with Continental philosophy and the Gallic post-structualists that have come to dominate humanities departments in the States (the British Marxists and so-called empiricists have never bought into such logomachy) coupled with a bit of Cold War era Pekinology to decipher the tea leaves, as it were. If that toolkit sits well within one's worldview, then Shelly's analysis is essentially sound albeit somewhat dated.

I say "dated" because of this: 2009, the year in which the film premiered, also marked a huge upswing in what are referred to as "mass incidents"--polite political jargon for "riots" and "all hell breaking loose locally"--in China. 2009 was the first time there were over 90 thousand local domestic mass incidents there. We've since topped 100K and these things keep escalating by the tens of thousands every year. My own reading of the film points toward a lack of civil society "social structures"--to use Phillip Kuhn's China Area Studies language--mostly of a political nature, and just how loose the gaskets of the social contract are on the ground in that country. Universally panned--though as Shelly notes, profitable enough to be considered 100 million RMB blockbuster--consider for a moment Lu's film in contrast to the highly successful "Flowers of War," which crossed that 100 million RMB threshold in its opening weekend gross alone. Around that week one of the biggest mass incidents breaks out in Guangdong province after a suspect--arrested from another mass incident--died in police custody. Coupled with the Ai Weiwei secret house arrest earlier this year and it's an obvious a bad moon's rising as they'd say here in the South.

Yet if you read your Chinese papers, blogs, and bulletin boards, you'd find all manner of shit eating grin-wearing praise for "Flowers"--and if Shelly and Steve's sensibilities are correct--this pic ought to be even more offensive than "City of Life and Death" owing to it's even more (earnest?) use of (political?) spectacle. I don't totally buy Shelly's reading of the film because he doesn't elaborate on a clear definition for ideology and how Leninist political parties employ ideological works for "thought training" (very interesting in the Chinese case in that the CPC is one of the few Communist Parties in the world that did not start out Leninist) but I'm willing to cut him slack because _Cinema Scope_ is mainstream periodical that apparently eschews the use of (useful?) citations and foot notes.

But getting back to mass incidents and the cultural moment, the praise for "Flowers" in China as a remarkable piece of historical film making in addition to its boffo B.O. points at a deeply out of touch viewing class delighted with the conventions of "scar" fiction--much like my above missive to Steve, Google is your friend--but blind to the realities of widespread unrest. I admire Lu's "City of Life and Death" for how it showed how ugly everyone and all sectors of society were caught up in, if the anodyne term can be applied here, a "mass incident" gone horribly wrong. It seemed Lu was using allegory to, yes, talk a bit about the "Nanking Incident" (polite, upmarket Japanese phrasing for whatever happened in 1937) but also about, more importantly, the blind group think that emerges when the social contract breaks down completely (as is currently happening in China in accelerated form since 2009.) For that reason I don't buy Shelly's "ideology" argument but I cannot speak to what the article looked like prior to editing for general publication.

In a way Lu's pic reminds me of the recent Chinese dystopian sci-fi novel by former filmmaker turned TV producer Chan Koon-chung (Chen Guanzhong)--titled _The Fat Years_ in recent English-language translation. I thought Lu, along with Chan, were one of the few voices operating in the popular arts calling bullshit on ideology and exposing the emperor for his nakedness (Liu Xiaobo is more of a philosopher/literary critic along with being a human rights activist.) I'm not quite sure why Chinese audiences are eating this one up and why Western observers are so reticent to talk about it.

Lastly, Oscar for "Best Foreign Film," indeed. The thing's about 75% American English. Nonetheless, neat hearing so much local Nanjing dialect and Shanghainese featured in a mainstream non-documentary film (it seems local dialect cinema are the provenance of Hong Kong and Singapore nowadays.)
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Steve Erickson
Posted: Jan 23 2012, 08:50 PM


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Joined: 24-October 04



Now that I've seen THE FLOWERS OF WAR, I can concur with Yi that there's something really foul about it. I don't know enough about Chinese culture to say this with any certainty, but for this American viewer, the film seems to partake of Christian notions of sacrifice and redemption that aren't deeply felt, but absorbed from other films, particularly SCHINDLER'S LIST & SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Furthermore, the screenwriters are too lazy to even come up with a definitive fate for the prostitutes; although they hint very strongly at the ugliness that awaits them, the ending, especially the final freeze frame, allows for an out. The mixture of treacle and brutality is really unpleasant and jarring, and not in any produdctive way.
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