A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Flowers of War alternates between scenes of intense wartime brutality and sentimental dramatic moments. The savagery inflicted upon the Chinese in 1937 by invading Japanese troops during the historical atrocity known as "The Rape of Nanking" is graphically portrayed. The threat of rape underscores the entire film, and there are fierce fire fights, grisly shots of dismembered bodies, exploding soldiers, point-blank shootings, and multiple violent sexual assaults on both courtesans and innocent schoolgirls. Occasional swearing (including "s--t," "bastards," "ass," "f--k," "whore," and more) is both heard and seen in subtitles. Characters smoke throughout the movie and drink wine and whiskey; the hero (Christian Bale) is introduced as a hard-drinking man who passes out after getting very drunk. One tender love scene takes place between the hero and a courtesan; there's no nudity, but the characters kiss passionately and embrace as they begin to undress.
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What's the story?
December 1937, Nanking, China. Invading Japanese troops quickly overpower the few remaining Chinese soldiers occupying the city. American John Miller (Christian Bale) -- a self-serving, boozing mortician sent on a paid mission to bury the local Catholic priest -- makes his way through the bullets and piles of bodies to the church compound. He finds George (Tianyuan Huang), a young Chinese boy with responsibility for a dozen convent schoolgirls who are defenseless and terrified. When a group of beautiful young courtesans also seeks refuge in the church -- and the Japanese gain entrance despite the Red Cross banner, which is supposed to protect those within -- John is called upon to be the caretaker, defender, and "father" of them all. As threats of rape and death from the Japanese occupiers intensify, John -- with help from George, the girls, and the prostitutes -- seeks the inner strength, wisdom, and courage to save as many of them as he can.
Is it any good?
THE FLOWERS OF WAR is often repellent and sometimes touching. It presents a constantly shifting perspective -- from horrific battle and rape scenes to sentimental episodes of romance, self-sacrifice, and redemption. Though the characters are mostly one-dimensional and cliche-driven, the film is so beautifully shot and the odds stacked so heavily in favor of John Miller and his charges that it's almost a "guilty pleasure" in which the audience roots for, identifies with, and triumphs along with the heroes.
The movie informs viewers that more than 200,000 people were killed in Nanking. It seems clear that the filmmakers were trying to convey how devastating an atrocity this episode in history was. But The Flowers of War tells such an emotionally manipulative story that's so lacking in subtlety and heavy on caricature that it falls well short of its goal.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the very graphic violence in this movie. What were the filmmakers trying to achieve? How did you feel about what you saw? How does the impact of this kind of violence compare to the gore of a horror movie?
How historically accurate do you think The Flowers of War is? Why might filmmakers choose to change certain details when telling a fact-based story? Where resources are available if you'd like to know more about the actual event?
How did the filmmakers choose to show John Miller's change from scoundrel to true hero? What events influenced that change?
- In theaters: January 20, 2012
- On DVD or streaming: July 10, 2012
- Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tianyuan Huang
- Director: Zhang Yimou
- Studio: Beijing New Picture Film Co.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 146 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: strong violence including a sexual assault, disturbing images, and brief strong language
- Last updated: March 14, 2020
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