Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Boule de Suif" and "The Flowers of War" - on Sacrificing the Prostitutes for the "Greater Good"

A blockbuster movie came out of China, The Flowers of War, which just was nominated for a Golden Globe best foreign film award, compelled me to compare it to another artwork on the sacrificing of prostitute(s) for the "greater good".

It was a very BIG movie, based on the horrifying events of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, adapted from the novel The 13 Women of Nanjing by Yan Geling which tells the story of thirteen prostitutes who stepped in for female university students who were to be taken as "escorts" for the invading Japanese Imperial troops during the period when nearly 20,000 women and girls were raped and killed.  The production cost was reported to be close to US$100 million.

Noble story.  However, the advance promotional images, trailers and the premiere gala pictures made one suspect that this self-sacrificing story was told in a way with an almost sadistic glee, with the renown director Yimou Zhang demonstrated his unbelievable ability to turn any kind of human suffering and tragedy into a sumptuous visual banquet.

According to summaries I read from the reviews and garnered from trailers, there was an entertaining grand entrance of those prostitutes who were supposedly fleeing from terrifying soldiers - in elegant, glamorous tight-fitting gowns, with perfectly permed hair, impractical high-heels and glossy, shining lips to match.  Didn't they know that by dressing that way, they were courting trouble?  They looked like coming to a resort for a relaxing vacation.  Were they really so brainless?  Apparently, all these were calculated to create an even more entertaining scene - a cat fight between these "loose" women and uptight, prepubescent catholic school female students. 

Then a love affair between an American outsider and the leading prostitute.  They talked about love, not just out of ordinary behavior when cornered in an impossible position.  No, they were taking about true love.

Then, the loving shots of those perfect bodies being exposed inch by inch when the prostitutes took off their colorful gowns, in order to change into the students' plain ones.

From the summary, it seemed a claustrophobic and intimate story, begging to be told in an austere and contained way.  Instead, Zhang served us a full course meal, in technicolor, with canvas as big as that of the proscenium stage of the Metropolitan Opera.  There were many virtuosic shots of the war to make you want to cheer for the technical known-how, and many more gorgeous and flashy shots of feminine beauty to entice the audience to drool.

One of the reviewers from Variety said thus:
Zhang entertainingly tracks the tensions among this strange gathering of individuals, even staging a near-catfight between the indignant students and their diva-like guests. But the infighting comes to an end when Japanese troops invade the church and, not realizing there are courtesans hiding in the vicinity, try to force themselves on the students -- a sickening scene marked by the girls' screams and the sounds of clothing being ripped, all whipped into a frenzy of terror by d.p. Zhao Xiaoding's handheld camera. Yet the attackers are momentarily held at bay when Miller, in a moment of moral courage worthy of Karl Malden in "On the Waterfront," finds a way to stop their assault.

The sequence grips even as its stylistic heavy-handedness elicits a wince, something that could be said of the picture as a whole. Scene by scene, "The Flowers of War" is an erratic and ungainly piece of storytelling, full of melodramatic twists and grotesque visual excesses (a bullet pierces first a stained-glass window and then a girl's neck), which are nonetheless delivered with startling conviction. Zhang has no interest in sparing the viewer's sensitivity, and his willingness to push past the limits of good taste is what paradoxically lends his film a curious integrity."
Review posted on Slant Magazine stated that:
When Japanese soldiers invade the sanctity of a Catholic church in occupied Nanking, they demand the presence of the prepubescent students at an official function, one which, given an early scene of Japanese infantrymen attempting to brutally violate these very girls, will certainly involve rape and likely lead to their deaths.

Also camping out at the church is John (Christian Bale), an American mortician turned surrogate priest, and a dozen prostitutes who've come to seek sanctuary. With the hookers hidden away from sight, that benevolent group hits on the idea of pulling the old switcheroo, dressing themselves as the students and going willingly to their doom in the girls' place. There's some debate as to the moral efficacy of the maneuver, some pathos milked from John's inevitable romantic attachment to one of the prostitutes, and from the equivalencies the film draws between the young girls and their older counterparts, both of whom were subjected to childhood-defeating stresses at a young age. But mostly, the decision is one readily accepted by both the film and its characters without too much handwringing and the film's heavily educed final act simply milks unnecessary tension in the endless preparations for the final horrible moment.
 Lastly, said this about the movie:
As with other films by Yimou, principally "Raise the Red Lantern" (a powerful lord with three wives puts a red lantern outside the home of the spouse he will honor that night, leading to vigorous competition among the women), cinematography is so gorgeous that you can't be blamed for thinking that plot and performance take second and third place. In "The Flowers of War," photographer Zhao Xioding, shooting on location in Nanking, puts to shame all cheapskate producers who rely on digital photography at the expense of film, with all the lushness that only celluloid can evoke. The slow motion takes of panes of glass breaking, or bullets piercing the stained glass windows of a cathedral, the composite shots of exquisitely costumes courtesans are easily enough to make your attendance at this film more than worthwhile. Whether the story, given its saccharine patina, its graphic look at the expression "the prostitute with the heart of gold," can begin to match the cinematic looks, is quite another story.
This moving little humanist story was turned into an overwrought melodrama, largely due to Zhang's determination to beat Hollywood at its own game.  He is a visual artist and exhibitor, but not a humanist.  And the biggest problem I was that it seemed a foregone conclusion that the prostitutes ought to be sacrificed to save the more innocent ones.  No question asked.  That upsets me.  The movie apparently didn't dig into the psychology of the characters.  There were just situations and Voyeurism sensation.  The sumptuousness was seriously improper and implausible.

Look at the below images I culled online for the points I made.

Movie Poster

Production Photo

Production Photo

Production Photo


Premium promotion


This movie, naturally reminded me of another literature regarding the the sacrifice of prostitutes -- Boule de Suif, the short story by the French writer Guy de Maupassant.  Wikipedia summarized the story as below:
The story is set in the Franco-Prussian War and follows a group of French residents of Rouen, recently occupied by the Prussian army. Sharing the carriage are Boule de Suif (Suet Dumpling Butterball, also translated as Ball-of-Fat), a prostitute whose real name is Elisabeth Rousset; the strict Democrat Cornudet; a shop-owning couple from the petty bourgeoisie, M. and Mme. Loiseau; a wealthy upper-bourgeoisie factory-owner and his wife, M. and Mme. Carré-Lamadon; the Comte and Comtesse of Bréville; and two nuns. Thus, the carriage constitutes a microcosm of French society as a whole.

The occupants initially snub Boule de Suif but their attitudes change when she produces a picnic basket full of lovely food and offers to share its contents with the hungry travellers.

At the village of Tôtes, the carriage stops and the occupants realise they have blundered into Prussian-held territory. A Prussian officer detains the party at the inn indefinitely without telling them why. Over the next two days, the travellers become increasingly impatient, and are finally told by Boule de Suif that they are being detained until she agrees to sleep with the officer. She is repeatedly called before the officer, and always returns in a heightened state of agitation. Initially, the travellers support her and are furious at the officer's arrogance, but their indignation soon disappears as they grow angry at Boule de Suif for not sleeping with the officer so that they can leave. Over the course of the next two days, the travelers use various examples of logic and morality to convince her it is the right thing to do; she finally gives in and sleeps with the officer, who allows them to leave the next morning.

As they continue on their way to Le Havre, these 'representatives of Virtue' ignore Boule de Suif and turn to polite topics of conversation, glancing scathingly at the young woman while refusing to even acknowledge her, and refusing to share their food with her in the same way that she did at the beginning. As the coach travels on into the night, Cornudet starts whistling the Marseillaise while Boule de Suif seethes with rage against the other passengers, and finally weeps for her lost dignity.
To me, Maupassant dug far deeper into human psyche and our conduct, relations in a coded social structure and how the humiliated and persecuted were always applauded to their "voluntary" sacrifice for the "greater good" then condemned for their immorality once the crises for the rich and powerful have been averted.

I'm not condemning the movie "The Flowers of War" on their praising of the prostitutes' sacrifice.  Rather, I'm asking why wouldn't the movie concentrate on saving them instead.

1 comment:

  1. Movie opened in the U.S. and more reviews came out. The reviewer from Village Voice concluded thus:

    "With The Flowers of War, Zhang mostly just proves that there's no tragedy too terrible that it can't be turned into an operatic pageant—human suffering reduced to visual showmanship."

    What a Production: Nanjing Massacre as Showstopper in Flowers of War
    ( )