December 1937. The Japanese have taken Nanking. A group of terrified convent school girls hide in the compound of an American church, the priest is Father John Engelmann. Among the girls, is Shujuan, through whose 13-year-old eyes we witness the calamity that is to befall the church and its refugees.
The church is a neutral ground in the war between China and Japan. It becomes clear as the war progresses, the Japanese are not observing the rules of engagement. The streets of Nanking is strewn with dead bodies as the Japanese rape and pillage the civilians, the church will not be spared and the girls are in increasing danger. Prostitutes from the Qin Huai village brothel clambered over the wall and seek refuge in the church; Major Dai brought one of his wounded soldiers to the church. The neutral ground of the church is compromised.
I first knew about the book when the film was advertised and screened in the UK. When Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat announced February’s Literature and War Readalong is The Flowers of War, I was happy to come along.
The book offers a very promising read. There is a war. There is a priest and his deacon Fabio, cook George Chen and helper Ah Gu, innocent school girls locked up in the church with a group of irreverent prostitutes and a brave soldier, Major Dai. The book was written in a very simple prose, so easy to read that the pages flew by ever so quickly. The characters in the book (as opposed to the ones in the movie) had more depth. I learnt about the plight of the top ranking prostitute named Zhao Yumo, I understand why Father Fabio came to be in the church (raised as a Chinese, Fabio was neither Chinese nor American) and how Father John Ingelmann was a the sort of man who could “freeze familiarity”, always greet everyone and even Fabio “How good to meet you!” so that familiarity neither matured nor died (page 68).
I went on to watch the movie. The movie was inspired by a true event, unfortunately I was disappointed right from the beginning.
Spoiler alert for the movie.
The movie’s original name was 13 Flowers of Nanjing (金陵十三钗). I was annoyed by the character John Miller, the mortician. I did not see the central character Father John Ingelmann from the book in the movie but we have John Miller instead. John Miller is a drunkard, a frivolous character that doesn’t add any weight into a serious matter as the war of Nanking. Despite his many heroic act later on, I didn’t warm up to John Miller nor Christian Bale. I was annoyed that the movie did not stay true to the storyline of the book. The last remaining Chinese soldier died too early, students were traumatised by the atrocities. The stupid Japanese solders are unable to differentiate the look of the students from the prostitutes, even they have seen them several times (it’s not the case in the book). The Japanese Lieutenant requests to play the church piano (Give me a break!). Father John did not have a decent conversation with Major Dai. There is quite a fair bit of violence in the movie and there is a rape scene that I particularly fast forwarded because I couldn’t bear to watch it. The only consolation from the movie was that the cinematography is beautiful and the war scenes are believable. The scene where the women are packed up onto the truck in exchange for the student was very moving. I haven’t been disappointed by movies directed by Zhang Yimou before and I thought the movie could have been epic if it were to stay true to the book plot and inject a reverence to the war and the central character of the priest.
My favourite passage from the book:
Untimely demands for companionship were an irritating nuisance. In order to guarantee that one would not have to suffer this nuisance, it was necessary to spurn all human companionship. Human beings came together not because they got on well but because they could not do without each other. – page 146
I went to Shanghai, Suzhou, WuXi and Nanjing in 2004. The tour group brought us to Dr. Sun Yat Sen memorial but we did not visit the war museum unfortunately. What happened there in history was tragic and is one reason that the Sino-Japanese relationship is on rocky road. The book went on to illustrate the horror of what is going on outside the church ground, which is lacking in the movie. Civilians are being herded and tricked into believing that surrendering will save their lives. Grave diggers dug graves for their comrades and ended up digging their own graves. For a short book it covers a lot of ground and it is a delightful read. A part of me wonder in the time of tribulation, do we not do our best to help another fellow human being instead of self-preservation first? It is a wonder to find despite the animosity that these groups of people feel for each other initially, they made a very noble self sacrificing choice at the end for the other party.
Read the book, forget the movie.
Hardback. Publisher: Harvill Secker 2012, originally published 2006; Length: 250 pages; Setting: Nanking, China. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading on: 23rd February 2013, Saturday. Translated by Nicky Harman.
About the writer:
Geling Yan (严歌苓) was born in Shanghai, China. She performed as a dancer at age 12. She served in the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, in Tibet and later as a journalist in the Sino-Vietnamese War, achieving a rank equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel.
Her first novel was published in 1985. She is the author of such novels as The Banquet Bug (published as The Uninvited in the UK) and The Lost Daughter of Happiness, as well as a story collection entitled White Snake and Other Stories. Several of Yan’s works have been adapted for film, including Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, which was directed by Joan Chen, and Siao Yu, directed by Sylvia Chang and screenplay co-written by Ang Lee. Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of To Live and Raise the Red Lantern adapted one of her novellas, 13 Flowers of Nanjing, to the screen as The Flowers of War. She has worked on other scripts including a biography of Mei Lanfang, the Peking opera star, for Chinese director Chen Kaige.
She is a member of the Hollywood Writer’s Guild of America and the Writer’s Association of China.