How do you tell the story of war? These real-life epic tales can span years and continents, involving grand conquests and tiny tragedies. They change the shape of entire societies, countries' borders, and personal relationships. Any slice of the whole you choose will leave something out—and will inevitably say as much about the storyteller as it does about the war.
The Flowers of War takes us to the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 on the outskirts of Nanking. Director Yimou Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers) focuses our attention on a walled cathedral, where a handful of schoolgirls and a dozen prostitutes are hiding out from the invading Japanese troops, guided by a precocious 13-year-old orphan, George (Huang Tianyuan), and a drunkard American mortician, John (Christian Bale), who's just arrived to bury the recently killed priest.
Schoolgirls and prostitutes. An orphan boy and an alcoholic man. Flowers and war. We're clearly looking at the dichotomies of war—particularly the beauty amidst the unthinkable horror. And Flowers gives us plenty of both.
At the outset of the film, the Japanese have just taken over the area and both groups of females have narrowly escaped to the large, beautiful cathedral. For the girls—all around 12 or 13—this sanctuary is home, a familiar place of learning and safety. For several of the orphans in the group, including George, this is the only home they have. (One of these girls, Shu, played by Zhang Xinyi, offers us the recurring voiceovers.)
The first adult on the scene is John Miller (Christian Bale), the opportunistic American, who is soon searching the place for money and booze. We don't really know how he's gotten there in one piece or why he seems not to care one whit about this group of innocents trapped in the midst of a brutal war, but we do somehow know that he'll transform into a hero.
When the group of prostitutes arrives at the gate, with their colorful dresses, dark red lipstick, and flamboyant ways, the girls feel offended and threatened. John, of course, is thrilled. The group is all cackling catty comments, save for one, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), their smart, sophisticated leader. She sees John as their ticket to safety.
These groups are circling each other, sizing up their threats and opportunities, when the first band of Japanese soldiers invades the church. The prostitutes are able to hide in the cellar, where they have set up their temporary barracks, and John, who has donned one of the father's vestments on a drunken lark, poses as the priest. But the girls are savagely chased around the cathedral by soldiers hungry to take advantage of the "virgins! virgins!" It is a difficult wake-up call for all of them to the horrors of war.
In addition to these struggles for survival, we also meet a young, seriously injured soldier brought to the cathedral by one of the lone remaining Chinese soldiers in the area, a father of one of the school girls who is trying desperately to get his daughter to safety, and finally a new Japanese general who takes command of the cathedral and seems much more civilized and protective of its young inhabitants. And all this time John and Yu Mo are falling for each other.