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We've Got Virgins! History, Propaganda and "The Flowers of War"

by Anthony Kaufman
December 13, 2011 9:19 AM
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It was at the moment when the maurading Japanese soldiers broke into a cathedral, tried to rape a bunch of innocent Chinese schoolgirls, and a lone Chinese rifleman across the way managed to get off a few shots directly through the church's stained-glass windows, and into the neck of the Japanese attackers, that it became clear to me that director Zhang Yimou’s new epic about the 1937 Nanking massacre "The Flowers of War" is, well, frankly, propagandistic and, yes, anti-Japanese.

Actor Christian Bale, who stars in the film as an American who comes to the aid of several trapped Chinese girls and courtesans, has recently defended the film, telling the BBC, "It's far more a movie about human beings and the nature of human beings' responses to crisis." He added that the film discusses how a crisis "can reduce people to the most animalistic behaviour but also raise them up to the most honourable behaviour you could ever witness."

Americans don't come off too well, either, as Bale's character is initially portrayed as a lecherous, opportunistic, greedy drunk who just wants to get laid.

The film was apparently greeted wholeheartedly when it premiered Sunday in Beijing's People’s Political Consultative Conference, according to a report in the L.A. Times. "After the screening came an hourlong event in which the film’s cast appeared onstage in costume and made short speeches celebrating the film’s achievements. The band of actors that played the Chinese soldiers held their prop rifles high in the air and shouted “Chinese soldiers!” eliciting a smattering of applause from the mostly native crowd."

The most expensive movie in Chinese history, with a reported production budget of $94 million, "The Flowers of War" should do well in China's burgeoning movie market, where it's set to open in some 8,000 screens(!), but it's hard to say how it will be received in the West -- it comes out in the U.S. on Dec 23. (I wonder if it has a Japanese release date.)

Even the Times report highlights the fact that "the Japanese soldiers are presented as one-dimensional savages", noting the sequence in which one gleefully shouts "We've got virgins" after finding the schoolgirlsl. In its lush, artful presentation of violence, the film also seems to relish in such bloody acts, whether as a way to marytr and sympthathize with the fallen Chinese or take joy in seeing the few Japanese get their due.

Nanking has been a frequent subject of Chinese cinema. Director Jiang Wen’s 2003 film “Devils on the Doorstep” and Lu Chuan's 2009 film "City of Life and Death" both depict the horrors of the occupation, but they also attempt to depict a few of the Japanese  with some emotional depth.

Zhang Yimou is one of the most complex and contradictory propagandists in Chinese cinema history. Famously, his earlier films like "Raise the Red Lantern," “Ju Dou” and “To Live" were all banned locally when first completed.

In a New York Times story on the eve of Zhang Yimou's Beijing Olympics directed opening, he said he never had political aims.

But critics accuse the filmmaker of making a pact with Chinese reigning political leadership. “He went from being this renegade making films that were banned and an eyesore for the Chinese government to kind of being the pet of the governmen,” University of California Santa Barbara Chinese culture scholar Michael Berry told the Times. “It’s almost a complete turnaround from his early days.”

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  • vt87 | December 13, 2012 6:38 AMReply

    you need to get your head out of your self righteous arse, kaufman. EVEN the taiwanese and Chinese Americans know the Massacre is history.

  • Japan#1 | July 22, 2012 6:31 AMReply

    Kaufman is right in that the rape of Nanking never happened.

  • Andy | February 5, 2012 11:58 AMReply

    What didnt realise, till my Chinese wife told me, was it was the Kuomintang (who eventually fled to Tawainese) who bravely fought in the Cities against the Japanese and NOT the Communists.

  • Their movies and our movies | January 20, 2012 12:16 AMReply

    "... a lone Chinese rifleman across the way managed to get off a few shots directly through the church's stained-glass windows, and into the neck of the Japanese attackers, that it became clear to me that director Zhang Yimou’s new epic about the 1937 Nanking massacre "The Flowers of War" is, well, frankly, propagandistic and, yes, anti-Japanese."

    So.... Western movies portraying the heroic US marines killing Germans and Japanese during WW2 in an entertaining fashions are not propaganda and anti-Nazi/Imp Japanese?

    Look at Red Dawn (1984), a bunch of high-school kids managed to wipe out an entire Soviet patrol and kept the invading division harassed for years!

    In Behind Enemy Lines (2001), an entire division of armoured tanks and elite soldiers were no match for the 2-3 US naval helicopters.

    It's entertainment, simple as that.

    I'm a fan of Zhang Yimou's movies, and I don't think he makes propagandistic films. He simply wants to portray what feels right, to the Chinese, that's all.

    There's always two sides to every story. Today the Japanese are closer friends to the West than the Chinese, so that's probably why most Western reviewers have taken this stand.

  • irony? | December 31, 2011 3:35 AMReply

    I find it ironic that Kaufman, which I presume is a Jewish name, of all people would overlook the atrocious behaviors of war. As many have noted, no one would say the things he has said about Hitler's regime, but because it is about Chinese it's suddenly ok? Give me a break.

  • Night | December 23, 2011 3:14 PMReply

    "The reviewer is correct -- this piece of history has been exploited by China to whitewash its own historical crimes." No: wrong. That's not the issue with what Kaufman wrote. The issue isn't whether China has exploited the issue (it has), but whether ZHANG YIMOU SPECIFICALLY set out to create anti-Japanese hate speech. You seem to forget that "the Chinese government" didn't direct this movie, Zhang Yimou did. Everything you say about this picture could just as legitimately be levelled at Eisenstein's classic Battleship Potemkin, for example (makes the Communists in Russia look better by making the Czarist regime look so awful). A critic's responsibility is to honestly assess Zhang's (not the government's) true motives: did he set out to portray all Japanese people as monsters? Also, the piece you linked to by David Askew is an excellent piece of scholarship, but for the other side of the coin, read this: As the author notes: "You can judge a person by their adversaries, some say. I was pretty neutral on Chang’s work when it came out — The title seemed overwrought, and the reporting certainly was, and the massacre itself wasn’t really news to me as an historian, though I’m always pleased…. ok, usually pleased, to have Japanese history featured, and gritty wartime studies aren’t my thing, mostly — until I got a mailing (I think the whole AAS membership did, actually) from the other side. It was translated excerpts from a Japanese historian named Tanaka Masaaki, one of the hardest of what Askew calls the “Illusion School” of “myth-making” massacre deniers. It was a study in holocaust denial techniques: highly selective use of evidence, narrow definitions of terms, distortion of contradictory evidence and ad hominem attacks. It was chilling, and when combined with the consistent use of minimizing language in Japanese textbooks, it led me to believe that…. well, that the discussion isn’t over." If there's one thing we should take from this it's this: "the discussion isn't over."

  • A | December 23, 2011 10:41 AMReply

    Everyone here professing a knowledge of history should actually read some. The reviewer is correct -- this piece of history has been exploited by China to whitewash its own historical crimes. Mao's policies killed 30 million Chinese, but his image is still celebrated in China to this day, and the deaths he caused are never discussed publicly. And yet "Jess" has the audacity to accuse this film review of "holocaust denial." No, Jess, films like this are part of the real holocaust denial -- China's attempt to demonize others to cover up its own, far greater times against its own people.

    Anyone wishing to read a real work of scholarship on Nanjing should read this article below. It shows that the issue is much more complicated than everyone here seems to assume.

    Why do we not talk about the Chinese civil war which was ongoing at the very same time as the fighting with Japan? That communists were executing nationalists at gunpoint? The scorched earth policy of Chinese soldiers? That Chinese soldiers were likely hiding in plainclothes in Nanjing, amongst civilians?

  • Night | December 18, 2011 1:41 PMReply

    An interesting blogpost refuting the sorts of charges levelled in Kaufman's article can be read here:

    One particular comment in the comment thread is germane: "But not all Japanese soldier were portrayed as one-dimensional monsters. The media failed to mention how Zhang Yimou purposely chose to add a Japanese soldier who secretly aided the girls by trying to delay what the Japanese army was planning." Perhaps it is Kaufman, and his ilk, who are busy propagandizing against the film? Why was this detail - the sympathetic Japanese character - omitted from Kaufman's piece? Is Kaufman not capable of honest reportage? Highly ironic given the whole thrust of his accusation.

  • Jess | December 15, 2011 9:33 PMReply

    Honestly, calling a depiction of Japanese war crimes "propaganda" is the practical equivalent of Holocaust denial. These things happened. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Raped. Tortured. The Japanese adopted the same theories of eugenics as the Nazis. To them, to be Japanese was to be "pure," and Chinese people were sub-human. If you believe that Japanese soldiers frolicked around Nanking with linked-arms, singing Kumbaya, and nary a virgin was raped, then I'd have to question what kind of propaganda you were initially exposed to to begin with.

  • d | December 22, 2011 8:20 AM

    300,000 killed and 80,000 raped in one city.(nanking)

  • Night | December 14, 2011 11:23 AMReply

    Here's a comment left by poster Li Huiming at the Hollywood Reporter's (Todd McCarthy's negative review: "As someone with a grandmother and grandaunts who were raped and killed during 1937, I'd like to ask Todd Mccarthy: what is it about the scene that he takes issue with makes it "propaganda" and "unbelievable"? Does the idea of Japanese soldiers screaming "here are virgins!" stretch belief? If so, you ought to read the hundreds of eye-witness accounts (including the confessions of Japanese soldiers) that tells you exactly the words out of the soldiers' mouth as they looked for girls to rape. As someone who has read them, I must say: Zhang's version is fairly tame." Since the poster's complaint about McCarthy's review pertains to Kaufman's headline as well, it deserves mention here.

  • Night | December 13, 2011 4:07 PMReply

    Anthony Kaufman writes:

    "It was at the moment when the maurading Japanese soldiers broke into a cathedral, tried to rape a bunch of innocent Chinese schoolgirls, and a lone Chinese rifleman across the way managed to get off a few shots directly through the church's stained-glass windows, and into the neck of the Japanese attackers, that it became clear to me that director Zhang Yimou’s new epic about the 1937 Nanking massacre "The Flowers of War" is, well, frankly, propagandistic and, yes, anti-Japanese."

    Would you please explain how this equates to anti-Japanese propaganda? Again, nobody accused INGLORIOUS BASTERDS of being anti-German propaganda because it revelled in violence committed against Nazis, even though that movie was surely far more bloodthirsty and overtly, unapologetically vengeful in tone than this one. The reason is simple: American reviewers perpetrate a double standard where the Nazis are considered the devil incarnate, whereas comparably bloodthirsty and genocidal acts by other peoples are not seen to be so (largely because the commentators don't know anything about the historical events in question). The Japanese behavior during the Rape of Nanking WAS Nazi-like in its viciousness and the degree of its dehumanization, regardless of whether you personally are aware of it or not.

  • Night | December 13, 2011 4:01 PMReply

    From the synopsis of Iris Chang's acclaimed history book THE RAPE OF NANKING, published in the late 90s:

    "China has endured much hardship in its history, as Iris Chang shows in her ably researched The Rape of Nanking, a book that recounts the horrible events in that eastern Chinese city under Japanese occupation in the late 1930s. Nanking, she writes, served as a kind of laboratory in which Japanese soldiers were taught to slaughter unarmed, unresisting civilians, as they would later do throughout Asia. Likening their victims to insects and animals, the Japanese commanders orchestrated a campaign in which several hundred thousand--no one is sure just how many--Chinese soldiers and noncombatants alike were killed. Chang turns up an unlikely hero in German businessman John Rabe, a devoted member of the Nazi party who importuned Adolf Hitler to intervene and stop the slaughter, and who personally saved the lives of countless residents of Nanking. She also suggests that the Japanese government pay reparations and apologize for its army's horrific acts of 60 years ago."

    Chang's work was greeted as a piece of responsible scholarship, not propaganda, when it was first published. The Japanese behaviour during this event WAS barbarous and WAS almost indescribably savage. In fact, Iris Chang became seriously depressed and committed suicide at only age 36 after immersing herself for so long in recreating the events.

    Commentators seem to have a hard time grasping that, Yes, the Rape of Nanking really was that bad. Is it really too much to ask that reviewers learn some basic facts, read a few books, before trying to pass themselves off as experts? Do you think SCHINDLER'S LIST was anti-German propaganda because it didn't spend enough time showing "the good side" of the Nazis? Just what exactly did you want to see that Zhang didn't show you?

  • Mike | April 22, 2012 8:49 AM

    I could see that the fill was putting the Chinese point of view. They are hardly going to praise up the Japanese. During this time and WW11 their were terrible atrocities on all sides, which only goes to demonstrate that we should not back warmongering governments. Even today America and the UK have recently continued this horrible narcissistic mass murder.

  • Tony Amirra | December 13, 2011 3:28 PMReply

    check this out - and don't tell somebody faked this photo.

  • Tony Amirra | December 13, 2011 3:23 PMReply

    Simply, you are a biased, brain-washed moron who knows nothing (OR selectively blind) about history.

    And you logic is, anybody who doesn't praise the Nazi Hilter is anti-German. This is how pale and pathetic you are as a human being.

    Read some history before writing, please.

  • d | December 22, 2011 8:22 AM

    sadly this is the majority westerners view. they dont see how they are brought up by their own bias media.....

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