The Flowers of War (Nanjing War Movie)

The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗

Just watched this Zhang Yimou film in a local theatre today with a Chinese friend. It was so powerful that I had to step out about halfway through to calm myself down. The last movie that brought tears to my eyes was probably The Game, which was a completely different type of movie, but a psychological thriller none-the-less. I was speechless after that movie and I feel the same with this one.

Since my friend was a woman whose mother came from Nanjing it was extra moving for us. All I could do was give her a shoulder and a hug at the moments when we both wanted to close our eyes.

I’m sure this movie will get mixed reviews, but I would say that a movie which can twist the audience in so many directions is truly a piece of work. There are reasons to feel love, hate, sorrow, and joy in this tri-lingual film. And the subtitles are as important to the experience as the blood that is spilled on the ash-covered Nanjing city streets; as searing as the colorful church glass that shadders from a heroic snipers bullet; as garish as the bodies mutilated by acts of inhumane terror.

The hatred many Chinese have for the Japanese is excusable after watching such a film based on the stories of survivors. But certainly there can be no repeat of such an event. And to see an American opportunist caught in a moral dilemma was also intriguing… I do wonder how he had the courage to protect the women as he did.

Certainly, my modern life here in China is no where near comparable to 1937, but I feel rather uncomfortable at the moment. In about 1 hour, I will teach my Japanese students online. I wonder if they’ve seen this movie. I wonder what they have been taught of the Nanjing Massacre. I wonder if the memories of their retired soldiers are as visceral as those of my friend’s parents. Either way, the Rape of Nanking is certainly one of the darkest stains on the scroll of  modern history and occasional reminders, such as the Flowers of War, are valuable to us all.

If you are interested in more movies about this subject, watch Nanking! Nanking! which was filmed in 2009.

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  • Ruth Sheffer

    I saw this movie in my city Lin’an (hear Hangzhou) with my husband and a female Chinese friend who just started crying at the beginning and cried most of the way through.I found the movie to be too Hollywoody and just a touch TOO graphic for me. ANyway of course this historical event is so terrible and should be taught to all people wherever they live in the world.
    I also wondered how Japanese today would feel about the movie.

  • Ben Piscopo

    Thanks for your comments Ruth. I think the Japanese deal with it like how the Germans deal with their past. It’s obviously something to be ashamed of, taught to younger generations, and then never repeated. 

    Hope you enjoy your stay in China! Please contact me with any questions :)

  • guest

    I don’t think hatred is excusable, ever. I understand why Chinese hate the Japanese, and the Japanese should absolutely apologize fully and publicly for it. But this gov’t is using the event as a rallying point for cultural identity/social stability. It has got to stop relying on WWII as a way to unify this country. You can’t live with your head in the past…it gives Chinese ppl a rather skewed view in that they seem to think they have suffered more, suffered worse, etc. 

    The Japanese don’t deal with this the way the Germans do. German Chancellor Willy Brandt got to his knees in front of Jewish memorial and bowed his head. “German guilt” is a well-known phrase, German schoolchildren are required to learn about the Holocaust and hate groups are illegal– whereas the Japanese have not responded in kind. Their textbooks are rewritten; many students have no knowledge of the Nanjing incident or the *many other relatively similar incidents* in the Phillippines, in Singapore, in Korea, etc. There has been no public moment of apology from Tokyo that compares with what Brandt did for Germany.

    The movie was okay. Chinese directors have a sort of slapstick style that is popular here, but will seem dated to most Americans–this is simply a matter of taste. However, as many movies do, it stretched the truth when it came to history. The defense of Nanking was poorly thought out, and the Kuomintang’s scorched earth strategy was largely responsible for both the destruction of the city as well as the number of civilians left within. Absolutely nothing excuses the behavior of the Japanese, but neither is anything in war black and white. I sympathize completely with China on this issue, but this country has got to stop seeing itself as the perpetual victim and move forward in building a nation from within–one that doesn’t need to link its identity to World War II or Japan.

    It is important for foreigners in China to think critically and be alert to bad comparisons. 


  • Anonymous

    Thanks Leah, you make an interesting point about rallying a country but I don’t think this kind of action is uncommon. In the US the government is trying to find ways to create a “man on the moon” proposition in order to rally the country. Maybe 9/11 was a the most recent rally cry, but that event was nothing like the rape of nanking. 

    You make a comment at the end about foreigners needing to think critically and avoid making bad comparisons. I’m guessing that’s directed towards my post, which is fine. It’s easy for us to criticize from the outside looking in. I think they deal with these issues in their own way and it’s not for me to preach to my girlfriend, or other chinese, about how they should deal with their past. I could just tell her to “buck up, sissy pants” but I’m thinking that might come off badly… At any rate, it was just a movie.

  • where could i see the flowers of war i hangzhou from april 4-8th (i live in xiasha just outside of hangzhou). thanks for helping me out. will need directions (metro?) as well. thanks, kay

  • Anonymous

    Hi Kay,
    I think Flowers of War is out of cinemas by now. You could easily find it online for free. Try watching it on Letv in the mainland: