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

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik December 13, 2011 at 9:19AM

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.
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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.”