The Flowers of War is a novel by Geling Yan. It is set in Nanking, China during the infamous “Rape of Nanking” in 1937. Japanese soldiers have taken over the city and a multitude of atrocities are taking place. The soldiers are killing, raping, and looting. Thousands of Chinese civilians are targeted. Corpses fill the streets. No one is safe even in the “Safety Zone”.
Father Engelmann is an American priest who runs the St. Mary Magdalene mission. He is sheltering around a dozen schoolgirls. He is aided by his Deacon named Fabio. His adopted “son” George is the simple-minded cook. With gunshots ringing consistently on the outside, they pray that within the walls they will be safe. Things get more complicated when they are joined by fourteen prostitutes and three Chinese soldiers. The mission is now very dysfunctional. The virginal, innocent girls are confronted by the crass sexuality of the whores. There are several verbal and even physical confrontations between them. Although some of the girls are orphans and from the lower class, part of the girl/whore dynamic involves culture clash. The two groups are segregated with the girls in the attic and the whores in the cellar ( a bit heavy-handed in the symbolism ). There is also the conflict between the pacifist Father Engelmann and the soldiers. The Father insists the soldiers give up their arms in an attempt to keep the mission neutral, in case the Japanese come calling.
The main character is one of the schoolgirls named Shujuan. Her parents abandoned her and went to America. She has issues. The book develops several other characters. The leader of the prostitutes is Yumo. She is high-class and has the power to seduce any man. She is the conscience of the whores and tries to keep them in line. She becomes romantically involved with Major Dai – one of the soldiers who escaped the destruction of his command to take refuge in the mission. The other two soldiers miraculously survived the mass slaughter of over 5,000 prisoners. The flashback is one of the most memorable of the novel.
It’s just a matter of time before the war finds them. Meanwhile, there are problems with the lack of food and water. As time passes, the girls and the prostitutes thaw toward each other. Shujuan spends time watching them through a ventilation shaft. It’s eye-opening, but even more ear-opening.
All good things must come to an end, however. Japanese soldiers arrive and find the three soldiers. The Japanese are thuggish and brutal. Father Engelmann tries to stand up to them, but it is hopeless. None of the trio survives, but the females are undiscovered. For now. Someone rats out the girls and the Japanese return for them. Father Engelmann is told they are wanted for entertainment at a party. He does not fall for that old one and manages to delay the abduction. The solution is simple math and involves the suddenly altruistic prostitutes.
The novel is surprisingly good. Yan writes well with few frills. The plot is not complicated, but it is not predictable (except for the solution to the dilemma). The back-stories are interesting. The characters are appealingly drawn and you care about them. Father Engelmann starts off as priestily naïve about the Japanese, but he evolves into a hero. Yumo is the stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold, but she balances the whores with mouths of potty. Shujuan connects them together well. Yan writes teenage girl realistically. The main flaw is the implausibility of the conclusion. Yan definitely stretches credulity, but I have to admit it was satisfying.
The movie “The Flowers of War” was released in 2011 and was directed by Zhang Yimou with a huge budget. He used part of the funds to hire Christian Bale to play the main character – American mortician John Miller. A Chinese film with an American hero, imagine that. The movie was a major hit in China and went on to become the top grossing movie in Chinese history. It was nominated for several awards, but was not a favorite of critics. Although Geling Yan helped with the screenplay, the plot is very different than the novel.
In the movie, the schoolgirls and Miller arrive at the mission after running through the chaotic streets. Father Engelmann is already dead and only George is there. Miller is the stereotypical Yank – crass, money-hungry, alcohol-loving. He is in need of redemption, naturally. The prostitutes arrive soon after. They are basically as depicted in the book. Since the version I watched lacked subtitles, I can only assume their dialogue was similar to the book. A stunning beauty named Ni Ni plays Yumo. Miller hits on her in an embarrassing way. “There’s no coffee. Let’s get liquored up”. (A line not taken from the book.) Major Li (the movie combines Major Dai and Sergeant Li) arrives with the wounded young soldier, followed shortly by rampaging Japanese vermin who chase the girls all over the mission with rape on their minds. The Japanese are distracted by a sniping Li and charge off to go 40 on 1. Li is a Chinese Rambo and takes most (if not all) of them with him in a scene full of “Tae Guk Ri” spectacle with ridiculous explosions. The scene is cathartic and officially makes the movie a war movie, but is nowhere in the book.
Miller decides to assume the role of a priest. He shaves his scraggly beard and hits the redemption road. A new group of Japanese arrive led by the cultural (and seemingly human) Col. Hasegawa. He apologizes for the previous group and promises to return to hear the girls sing. He puts guards around the mission. Two of the whores manage to sneak out to get some more pipa strings and to help advance the plot in two ways. First, Miller meets a friend who encourages him to escape. No thanks, I want to go to Heaven by continuing to masquerade as a priest. Second, we get another frenetic chase scene culminating with a horrific glimpse at what will be in store for the girls if they fall into Japanese hands. This scene was briefly mentioned in the epilogue of the book.
After the girls sing angelically for Hasegawa, he “invites” them to perform at a military celebration. Nothing to worry about. And yet… The girls climb to the top of the tower to commit suicide and are only dissuaded when Yumo and the other prostitutes offer to take their places. Lucky thing Miller is a mortician who can make whores look like virginal thirteen year olds! Unfortunately, there are thirteen girls and only twelve whores. (This math problem does not appear in the novel.) Someone needs to volunteer to become Georgette.
I have posited in the past that movies based on books can and should be better than their source material. And I would argue that a majority are. This movie does not fit my theory. One major inferiority is the Miller character. If ever a character was shoe-horned into a movie, this one is. He is nowhere to be found in the book and replaces the superior Father Engelmann. The pre-redemption personality is cringe-worthy and the redemption is cliché. The other huge flaw is the obvious attempt to add “explosions” literally and figuratively. The director and screenwriter (the non-Yan one) must have found the book boring. They added three action scenes and subtracted the mundane lack of food and water aspects. The movie sacrifices realism for pizzaz. Check out the prostitutes’ hair.
Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’s “Literature and War Readalong”) suggested that if we did not read the book, we could substitute the movie. Not a good suggestion. The movie is radically different from the book. Where the book has an implausible ending, the movie is rife with implausibilities. However, the movie does have its strengths. The acting is good, except for pre-priest Bale. The Shijuan and Yumo characters are well-played and accurately reflect the novel. Both the girls and the prostitutes are fine (I guess, since I could not understand a word they were saying). The movie is visually stunning. The cinematography pulls out all the bells and whistles (hand-held, slo-mo, low angle, etc.) The combat is reminiscent of Korean war films like “Tae Guk Ri”. Watch out for flying debris!
In conclusion, definitely read the book and if you get a chance and have Netflix Instant, watch the movie. Make sure you do it in that order!
Book = B+
Movie = C+
the full movie