In his review of The Flowers of War, Roger Ebert accuses the director of suffering from what you might call the-last-samurai prejudice. The film, now streaming on Netflix, follows an unlikely band of Chinese schoolgirls and prostitutes hiding in a cathedral during the Nanjing Massacre. Their only hope of survival is John Miller, a American wastrel pretending to be a priest. “Now let me ask you,” Ebert writes, “can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell this story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking too much?” He gives the film two out of four stars.

It deserves better.

For one thing, nearly every frame could be a painting. Director Zhang Yimou, probably most famous abroad for his 2002 kung fu epic Hero, is one of the best cinematographers working today. His Nanjing is a smoking wreck of sagging roofs and rubbled walls. Charred rickshaws tilt sideways in the streets. Anyone alive is hiding, or trying to find someone hidden to rape and kill. A toadskin grime clings to the faces of the survivors, all of whom share the same problem: how to scram the hell out of town.

The schoolgirls, shaken innocents, get along as children do. The prostitutes, though, saunter onscreen in garish qipaos, with pin-curled hairstyles and thick red lipstick, squealing happily and lugging suitcases. They aren’t stained by the horrors surrounding them. They don’t seem to recognize the stakes, at least not at first. When the hideous direction of the Japanese occupation eventually clarifies, everyone begins to reorient priorities.

The first Japanese soldiers we meet are cartoonish, leering, bug-eyed, rape-frenzied gargoyles. This is the picture of the Japanese invader that endures today in the popular Chinese consciousness. Zhang Yimou eventually tempers the stereotype by introducing a Japanese officer shaded by regret. Incredibly, as Zhang acknowledged later, this small sympathy is probably anachronistic.

Consider this incident from the day Nanjing fell: Thirty soldiers pounded on the door of a city home, shot the landlord when he answered, shot his tenant, shot the landlord’s wife for asking why, fucked and bayoneted the tenant’s wife on the hallway table she hid under, wedged a perfume bottle in her vagina, bayoneted her baby, shot her seventy-four-year-old grandmother hiding in the next room, shot her seventy-six-year-old grandfather while he clutched his wife’s body, fucked her sixteen year old daughter to death with a bamboo cane, gangbanged her fourteen-year-old daughter three at a time, bayoneted her fourteen-year-old daughter, bayoneted her eight-year-old daughter hiding under the bedsheets, bayoneted the landlord’s four year old, meloned his two year old’s head with a sword, and then they moved on. The girl stabbed through the blanket survived. Blood on the hallway table remained wet for weeks.

Fact can be more telling than fiction when representing such brutal extremes. The artist must either offer an authoritative account, present suffering and sacrifice from an unexpected direction, or risk the tumble into sentimentality. Picasso used abstraction. Spielberg focuses his attention on workaday mundanities. Zhang Yimou, in the most expensive film in Chinese history, tells the story from the perspective of kids, whores, and an American drunk called John Miller. “A foreigner,” says Zhang, “a drifter, a thug almost, becomes a hero and saves the lives of Chinese people. That has never ever happened in Chinese filmmaking, and I think it will never happen again in the future.” He may be right, although when his characters lose their insouciant, roguish edges – when they become martyrs and heroes – the story begins to wobble.

I think what annoyed Roger Ebert was an inkling of being pandered to. Christian Bale, who plays John Miller, appears to fall in the same pattern as Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, or Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans – famous white faces apparently shoehorned into a non-white experience. Whether or not white actors belonged at the center of those films may be debated. But Ebert made a basic, category mistake. He watched The Flowers of War in the straightjacket of his Hollywood prejudices, when he should have swapped into his Chinese spectacles to see Zhang’s subversions as what they are.

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