Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Movie Review: Flowers of War (Sunday, January 22, 2012)

Craig Bernthal

Flowers of War.  Directed by Yimou Zhang. 2012. Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Xinyi Zhang.

Nanking. Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. 2007. Jurgen Prochnow, Mariel Hemmingway, Woody Harrelson.

City of Life and Death. Directed by Chuan Lu. 2009. Ye Liu, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi

John Rabe. Directed by Florian Gallenberger. 2009. Ulrich Tukur and Steve Buscemi.

American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin by Hua-ling Hu. Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang. Basic Books, 2012.

The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking, Pegasus Books, by Ying-Ying Chang, 2011. 

This weekend in Berkeley I walked down to the Movies on Shattuck and took a gamble on seeing a movie I’d heard nothing about, Flowers of War,with Christian Bale in the lead. It was offbeat, beautifully filmed, as are so many Chinese movies, and it finished with the mixture of sadness and inspiration that Steven Spielberg so often aims at and misses. The movie takes place during the Rape of Nanking and it’s about human sacrifice. John Miller (played by Bale) is a dissolute drifter and mortician who finds himself playing the role of priest to the surviving girls of a Catholic convent--this, after he is accidentally baptized in a vat of flour. He is the one who, in the basement of an abandoned Catholic church, must prepare 13 victims for sacrifice to the Japanese. Anyone whose ideas of the Japanese Imperial Army of World War II have been formed by Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima needs to see this movie as a chaser.

        In the Second World War, many events might compete for the title “greatest atrocity.” For those in the West, the Holocaust is probably the most shocking exercise in slaughter: 6 million Jews died in the death camps of Nazi Germany—two-thirds of the Jews in Europe. The total number of people killed in the camps, however, may have be somewhere between 11 and 17 million, including gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Russian civilians, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political and religious opponents. For personal, in your face sadism, however, it is hard to compete with the actions of the Japanese Army. The single incident that stuck in American minds throughout my youth was the Bataan Death March. (For a recent history of this event see Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael and Elizabeth Norman).

    We have tended to pay less attention, however, when Asians are massacring Asians. The Rape of Nanking, in the last few years, is finally getting the attention it deserves in books and films. 

Nanking fell to the Japanese Army on December 13, 1937, after which a six-week slaughter began, almost unimaginable in its viciousness. Estimates of the number of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war murdered range from 200,000 to 300,000. (To get some perspective, the entire military death toll for the American Civil War was about 600,000; the number of American military deaths during World War II was about 416,000.) The estimate of the number of women and children raped in Nanking is about 20,000. It is that astonishing figure that gives the atrocity its name.

In the midst of the fall of Nanking, 22 foreigners stayed in the city: journalists, doctors, missionaries, and a German businessman (and Nazi), John Rabe. Rabe became a leader of 15 of these people, who designated themselves the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. They attempted to establish a free zone in the city where Chinese civilians could take shelter. They were, to some extent, successful. Using his Nazi credentials for influence with the Japanese, Rabe helped save the lives of thousands of Chinese. The story of these Europeans and Americans is told in a fascinating documentary, Nanking (2008), directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, using Mariel Hemmingway, Woody Harrelson, and Jurgen Prochnow, among others, as readers of the diaries and letters of the those who stayed. (By the way, Rabe returned to Nazi Germany, convinced that he’d get a sympathetic hearing from Hitler and expose the atrocities. Instead, he was taken into custody and interrogated by the Gestapo for three days, then sent by his company, Siemens, to Afghanistan. He died of a stroke in 1950.) Prochnow reads the diary and letters of Rabe; Mariel Hemmingway reads Minnie Vautrin, an American Missionary who founded the Ginling Girls College in Nanjing. Here is one of her diary entries:

There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night—one of the girls was but 12 years old. Food, bedding and money have been taken from people. … I suspect every house in the city has been opened, again and yet again, and robbed. Tonight a truck passed in which there were eight or ten girls, and as it passed they called out "Jiu ming! Jiu ming!"—save our lives. The occasional shots that we hear out on the hills, or on the street, make us realize the sad fate of some man—very probably not a soldier.

Haunted by what she’d seen and guilt over not having saved more of her girls, Minnie Vautrin committed suicide in Indianapolis in 1940.

What does the historical fiction, Flowers of Heaven, add to this? It explores the idea of sacrifice as a spiritual reality. About 15 Chinese girls in a Catholic convent, their families probably dead, their priest dead, surrounded by Japanese soldiers, are forced to hide out in an abandoned Cathedral with about the same number of Chinese prostitutes and a hard-drinking American undertaker. The chemistry of that situation is what drives the movie. It opens with the girls, running toward the Cathedral, through bombed out streets, in the midst of a battle, and cuts to John Miller, who has been called to the Cathedral to bury the priest. While pursued by a Japanese soldier, he falls into a bin of bleached flour, and comes out white. This baptism and sanctification is comically out of character, but it doesn’t bode well for him, as he is called to live up to it. Part of the fascination of the movie is watching Bale’s character make good on that symbolic opening and take on the role of priest as, almost in spite of himself, he tries to protect the convent girls. Into this situation add Nanking’s most famous prostitutes, who have also taken refuge in the Cathedral, and whose life spans among the Japanese Army would be brutally short. Though they are at odds with the girls at first, they finally become their “big sisters.”

That most of the movie is shot within the Cathedral gives it a hallucinogenic quality. Light, coming through stained glass pocked by bullets, adds a strangely peaceful atmosphere to the violence.  As Miller gets drunk on communion wine, Eucharistic issues are dropped onto the viewer’s plate. From out of these strange ingredients a community begins to form--a communion--and the final question becomes, will the prostitutes sacrifice themselves for the girls, who have been commanded to “sing” before a party of Japanese officers? In the most gripping scene of the movie, Miller must prepare the prostitutes for that sacrifice by making them look enough like the girls that they can be substituted, and being a skilled mortician, he is up to the job. I can only work on people when they are lying down, he says, as he performs his cosmetology, essentially putting them on the altar. He truly becomes the priest, in love, preparing the lamb or the ox for sacrifice. I enjoy Christian Bale as Batman, but I think this is his best movie since Branagh’s Henry V.

What strikes you first in this film is the brutality. The Rape of Nanking demonstrated the worst that people can do to each other. Japanese soldiers used live civilians for bayonet practice. Two Japanese officers competed with each other to behead the most Chinese. Some Japanese historians deny these stories, but you can find bayonet practice pictures on the Internet—the “Kodak moments” of the Japanese Imperial Army.Flowers of Heaven depicts these events in small, exemplary scenes, especially the brutal rape and bayoneting of one of the prostitutes by a squad of Japanese infantry. On the other hand, it shows the best that people are capable of, which is loving sacrifice for each other. Spielberg would have ended the movie with most of the characters escaping and a group hug—that’s Schindler’s List. This movie does not end that way, and once again put a question to me: “Is sacrifice somehow at the heart of the universe?” Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his private notes to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, clearly thought the answer was “yes”:

The world, man, should after its own manner give God being in return for the being he has given it or should give him back that being he has given. This is done by the great sacrifice. To contribute then to that sacrifice is the end for which man is made.

That is a hard saying. But to quote a friend of mine at St. Anthony of Padua, Fresno: “Why should we expect to get a better deal than the Boss?”

For an excellent review of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking go to this link:

Chang, like Minnie Vautrin, can be taken as a late casualty of Nanking. She committed suicide at the age of 36.

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