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Film / Flowers of War

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A 2011 historical drama film made by Zhang Yimou, The Flowers of War (or Nanjing Heroes/13 Flowers of Nanjing) is set in 1937 during the Rape of Nanjing (see Second Sino-Japanese War). An American mortician, John Miller (Christian Bale), is caught in the conflict and seeks shelter at a church full of terrified Catholic school girls, as do a number of prostitutes who take up residence in the church's cellar.

At first simply wanting to be paid for the funeral he came to perform, Miller reluctantly pretends to be a priest in order to protect the girls, and to buy enough time for him to fix the church's broken truck so they can escape the city - although there isn't room in it for all of them and the prostitutes, who naturally want to get out of Nanjing as well. But, as the Japanese atrocities grow ever more terrible and the students are threatened, Yu Mo (the de facto leader of the prostitutes, played by Ni Ni) and her fellows take it upon themselves to save the girls from an awful fate.


This film provides examples of:

  • Attempted Rape: The Japanese soldiers who break into the church try to rape the school girls. Major Li thankfully stops them.
  • Bad Habits: Miller initially puts on the deceased priest's outfit as a drunken prank, but then begins to impersonate a man of the cloth in earnest to protect the schoolgirls from the Japanese.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Shu and her friends try to throw themselves off the bell tower of the convent, rather than let the Japanese get their hands on them again. And when the prostitutes and George are about to set off they arm themselves with sharp fragments of mirror, so they can commit suicide rather than be raped to death.
  • Bitter Sweet Ending: The women of the Qin Huai River and George are taken away by the Japanese. While their fate is left unclear, we know it was probably horrible. But Miller manages to get the girls out of Nanjing and to safety, so their sacrifice wasn't in vain.
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  • Chekhov's Skill: Miller uses his skills as a mortician to prepare Pu Sheng for burial, and later to make the women - and George - look more like young girls, so as to deceive the guards.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Shu's father, Mr. Meng, cooperates with the Japanese, and she despises him for it. He's portrayed sympathetically, though, as he helps Miller to repair the truck and when he's killed, Miller tells Shu insistently that he was a good man and regrets there was no time to give him a proper burial.
  • Death by Materialism: Two of the prostitutes leave the relative safety of the church compound to pick up some items at their old brothel. One wanted new strings for her pipa to play at Pu Sheng's funeral, which leaves her off the hook as far as this trope is concerned, but the other wanted to get her jewel earrings. Neither survives.
  • Ear Ache: Dou bites off the ear of one of her captors as it is her only method of getting back at the Japanese soldiers who brutally sodomize her. Naturally, this does not end well, but she most likely would have been killed anyway.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Played straight with Dou's death, but the rest of the movie averts this to demonstrate the horrors of the Nanking massacre.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Major Li takes on a group of far more Japanese soldiers, knowing it will end in his death. George and the prostitutes take the places of the girls, fully aware of what's in store for them.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Inverted at the start: when we first meet the women they embody the Chinese stereotype of prostitutes: "Prostitutes never care about a falling nation, they sing and dance while others are dying." They monopolize the cellar and refuse to let the girls hide there. Very soon, however, we're shown what's beneath the veneer; damaged, wounded young women who just want to survive. They take care of the wounded Pu Sheng and grieve when he dies, are repentant at essentially having caused the death of two of the girls, and in the end they decide to play the trope straight and defy the stereotype, by taking the students' place.
  • Hot for Preacher: Shu develops an unspoken crush on Miller after he starts impersonating a priest. Yu Mo points it out to him.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Colonel Hasegawa of the Imperial Japanese Army is a cultured officer who puts a stop to any more attacks at the convent by having guards posted outside. Appealing to his humanity only goes so far however, as John finds out. While Hasegawa is better than most Japanese soldiers and may even have personal misgivings about the way the war in China is being fought, his sense of duty compels him to carry out his orders to have the convent girls taken away to become sex slaves for his superiors.
  • Putting on the Reich: A non-villainous example. Because the Nationalist regime's elite troops were trained and equipped by German advisors, they wore uniforms and used equipment similar to those of the Wehrmacht in the early years of the Second Sino-Japanese war.
  • Rape as Backstory: Yu Mo reveals that she was first raped by her stepfather, who then sold her to a brothel before she was even thirteen where she "serviced" countless men.
  • Rape as Drama: Dou is caught and gang-raped by the Japanese soldiers until one of them kills her in a rage after she bites him.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: On the part of the Japanese since the story takes place during the Nanking Massacre.
  • Rare Guns: One of the few pieces of media to actually depict Japanese soldiers using the relatively unknown Type 11 light machine gun, rather than the more iconic Type 96. Justified, as they were just introducing the new gun into the arsenal at the time the film is set in.
  • Scenery Gorn: Nanking, so very much so.
  • Sexy Walk: Done to an astounding, almost ludicrous effect by Mo. A very drunk John appreciates this immensely.
  • Shaming the Mob: John tries to do this with the Japanese soldiers who break into the church and are trying to rape the school girls. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't work.
  • Taking You with Me: Major Li booby-traps himself so that when the Japanese finish him off, his dead body falls off the building to trigger a massive bunch of hand grenades. It works, and he takes out a lot of troops with him.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Both Dou and Lan. I mean really, running through bombed-out, Japanese-controlled Nanking just for earrings and pipa strings?
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Subverted. At first the young prostitutes come off as a cheerful lot, happy with their lives. Then it turns out some were sold off to the brothel before they were even in their teens or tricked into joining. One speaks hopefully of buying her way out too.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Or, in this interesting inversion, the white cat that Mosquito found.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: George.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Japanese definitely would. They try to rape the girls, and kill one of them by throwing her down the stairs.