The good American
Nowadays it’s known as the Nanjing massacre, but for a long time it was called “The Rape of Nanking”, and it holds the dubious distinction of being the “worst single atrocity” of the 20th century. You’ve got to wonder how such things are calculated: Is there a time limit to what you can call a “single” atrocity? And at which point is it upgraded to genocide? Or, let’s be frank, downgraded to a mere massacre?
The Nanjing atrocity took place over about seven weeks in December 1937 and January 1938, a period in which Japanese troops killed about a quarter of a million Chinese civilians and soldiers who had surrendered. To make a rough comparison (and we’re leaving out any aerial-bombing massacres, gas chambers and the like: this is hands-on massacring), Soviet military police killed about 22 000 Polish prisoners over a similar time period in the Katyn Forest massacre of 1940 — and the Russians were being production-line methodical. Do the math: the Russians averaged, at best, about 2 800 deaths a day, but in the Nanjing free-for-all the Japanese were managing a stupendous 5 000!
“History is what hurts,” wrote Frederic Jameson, and you need this background because Zhang Yimou’s new movie, The Flowers of War, is a 150-minute epic about something that is part of the cultural history of any Chinese person who goes to see it, something that has been violently debated for 70 years and is still a bone of contention between Japan and China. It is the equivalent of a megabudget two-and-a-half-hour South African movie about, let’s say, the Sharpeville massacre.
So the background is this. It was a “period of disunity”, as Chinese historians like to put it, though some just call it a “warlord period”. The Qing dynasty had fallen, and Chinese republicans and nationalists and emergent communists were battling for control of the vast country. In 1932, the Japanese seized part of northern China and made of it a puppet state (see The Last Emperor). Five years later, a mild skirmish between Japanese and Chinese troops escalated quickly into what became the Second Sino-Japanese War or what Chinese schoolchildren have been taught to call the Eight-Year War of Resistance against Japan.
At first the war went well for the Japanese Imperial Army. It swept south and took Beijing and its port; it laid siege to Shanghai, China’s economic capital, and took that after a few months (see Lust, Caution). Then it headed for Nanjing, the capital of the Chinese Nationalist government — which immediately fled, leaving Nanjing defended mostly by raw recruits.
The Japanese basically flattened Nanjing. They were in a very bad mood, because earlier that year, in the summer, they’d thought taking Shanghai would be easy but Chinese resistance was obstinate. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and the Japanese army was exhausted, but Tokyo decided it should push on and take Nanjing. What happened, as winter set in, was rather similar to the way the Russian army raped and pillaged its way to Berlin in 1945, and by the time the Japanese got to Nanjing that December they were just getting started.
The Japanese took about 150 000 Chinese troops prisoner, then started killing them. The horror stories abound, though the most famous one is probably invented — Japanese officers racing to see who could decapitate 100 Chinese soldiers the fastest. That’s relatively sporting compared with the Japanese troops who were encouraged to practice their bayonet work on live Chinese; some of this was even filmed. And it was nothing compared with the carnage wreaked on the civilian population, 100 000 or so of whom died. It was a seven-week orgy of violence, with thoroughgoing sexual violence directed at women of all ages.
Rape, indeed, is central to The Flowers of War. It is very much on the minds of the girls and women who take shelter in the compound of a Catholic cathedral and school during the Japanese onslaught on Nanjing. They know about what the Japanese army has done on its march to the city, just as most Chinese people seeing the movie will have at least the phrase “The Rape of Nanking” on their minds as they sit down to watch the film.
An American interloper, played well but with a very odd beard by Christian Bale, finds himself trapped in this compound and, despite his deep desire to get away, is dragged into helping the 12 or 13 terrified convent schoolgirls sheltering there. His job is made harder by the arrival of another dozen or so women, glamorous courtesans who have fled from their brothel on the riverside. Can they make it out? Or will they all be raped and murdered?
This scenario clearly echoes the historical fact that many of those who survived the Nanjing massacre were rescued by 15 Westerners — led, ironically, by a Nazi businessman. These Westerners unilaterally declared a “safety zone” in part of the city and faced down the Japanese troops. The German businessman’s membership of the Nazi Party, in the context of the Nazi alliance with Japan, helped a great deal.
Zhang’s movie, based on a novel by Gelin Yang, sensibly homes in on a relatively small set of characters, though the wider backdrop of the war is magnificently realised: The Flowers of War has an opening sequence to rival that of Saving Private Ryan, and as much attention has been paid to the detailed mise en scène of a ravaged city as Zhang ever paid to the colour-coded martial-arts episodes of his Hero or the mesmerising sleeve-and-drum dance that begins The House of Flying Daggers.
Hero, the reader may recall, ended with the titular hero surrendering to the need for a unified China, and in that it was a propagandist parable. There is obviously some propaganda, too, in The Flowers of War, and Japanese nationalists are probably a bit miffed, but it does not mar the whole. Zhang’s movie is wonderful to look at and, despite its length, thoroughly engrossing as well as, finally, rather moving.