Sexified Nanjing Massacre Turns Off Chinese Film Fans: Adam Minter

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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How do you eroticize a massacre? The marketing campaign for the new Chinese film “The Flowers of War,” a historical epic set against the bleak backdrop of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, provides some instruction. In the build-up to its Dec. 16 release in China, the film’s producers have promoted it via sexually-charged articles and images that have roiled Chinese audiences and critics more accustomed to somber memorials of the dark event.

Earlier this week, Ma Xiaolin, the influential founder of, a blogging platform favored by Chinese intellectuals, asked a question on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, that summarizes the Chinese public’s sentiment about the film:

Is it advisable to cast thirteen whores as the central characters and use the name "The Flowers Of War" to describe a signature event filled with national suffering?

Alas, most Western critics are oblivious to the backlash that the film’s eroticized marketing of rape and murder has produced in China. Instead, they have seen the film as an Oscar contender. It has an almost irresistible combo package for Hollywood’s awards season: a gripping subject matter; a $100 million budget; British Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale; and China’s most revered director, Zhang Yimou.

On Dec. 15, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated it for a Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

This ostensibly “serious” film revolves around Bale's character, John Miller, an American mortician, who arrives in Nanjing to bury a local priest just as Nanjing falls to Japanese soldiers. Miller takes refuge in a cathedral with a gaggle of teenage schoolgirls. Soon after, they are joined by thirteen of Nanjing’s finest, kind-hearted prostitutes -- the “flowers” referenced in the film’s title. Miller, who early on learns that the Japanese won’t mess with a Westerner, dons the late priest’s collar, becomes Father John and, in a cataclysmic climax, proves that he –- and the prostitutes -– are capable of selfless acts of courage.

And along the way, in a scene that has been central to the film’s marketing efforts, Bale's character sleeps with one of the prostitutes, played by the young Chinese actress, Ni Ni.

Zhang Yimou is not the first director to attempt to thread complex human emotions and impulses through a film set against a massacre. Stephen Spielberg faced the same delicate balance in making his holocaust epic “Schindler’s List” -- a film to which “The Flowers of War” is occasionally compared. Few, if any, doubted the sincerity of Spielberg’s intentions in making and promoting his film. To the Chinese public, however, Zhang’s intentions are in question: Instead of marking the Nanjing Massacre with reverence, Zhang and his team seem intent on finding new ways to sexualize it.

One of the movie's promotional posters features Bale wearing a priest's collar, leering at Ni Ni's chest. Advanced screenings of the film have offered members of the audience photo opportunities with thirteen "flowers" wearing form-fitting dresses. And there is the mind-boggling personal essay from Ni Ni that describes her love scene with Bale, helpfully titled, "Bale and I Act a Bed Scene." Originally written for a book of essays about the film, the producers decided to release it before the film premiered to drum up interest.

Had “Bale and I Act a Bed Scene” been written for, say, a romantic comedy, it would’ve just been snicker-worthy. But attaching such an essay to a film about one of the great crimes of the 20th century places it in a pantheon of tone-deaf acts of tastelessness.

The essay opens with Ni Ni, who was acting in her first feature film, admitting that she was nervous to disrobe for strangers. But she soon embraced her character of Yu Mo, the prostitute who gives in to a night of passion with Bale's character -- never mind the rape and murder occurring outside the church walls. It read:

I Yu Mo, am in love with this man. I know my love probably won’t survive, and I do not want to drag him down. I hope he can have calm and happiness … tonight, I am the most pure Yu Mo, most tolerant Yu Mo, the most lovely Yu Mo, the most real Yu Mo … I want to enjoy this short encounter, treasure every minute and every second in my mind.

The essay goes on, and becomes much ickier.

On Dec. 13, the 74th anniversary of the slaughter, Zhu Dake, a professor at the Institute for Cultural Criticism at Tongji University -- and one of China’s most respected culture critics -- published a scathing critique of “The Flowers of War” in the influential, Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolitan Daily. Zhu did not hold back with his contempt for the marketing of the film -- and producer Zhang Weiping’s demand that ticket prices for "The Flowers of War" be the highest in Chinese film history:

The producer's joyful hyping of love scenes and brave words on the value of money before the seriousness of the Nanjing Massacre can only serve to humiliate all the victims and each of the eighty thousand Chinese women who were raped. By placing that church where the massacre happened into the arena of love, by changing the memory of a national wound into a carnal memory, by turning political story-telling into fleshy story-telling, by making bloody war into news of love, you transform significant hardship into an important tool for money making. Isn't such righteous, erotic patriotism a serious failure of values?

This sentiment has resonated across Chinese blogs and microblogs.

Luo Qi, a citizen of Nanjing, said on Weibo: “Nanjing never welcomes people who take that period of history and use it to make money. It is a miserable fact but it is not art!” And in perhaps what is one of the harshest stabs, Xu Gang, a Chinese national and professor at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, asked his friends to avoid the film, adding: “Even in Hollywood, there are serious movies not controlled by commercial profits. For example, movies about Auschwitz have dealt well with the trauma left by brutal wounds.”

The film will be released in the U.S. late next week. Western critics have questioned if “The Flowers of War” is actually finely wrought anti-Japanese propaganda. With its Golden Globe nomination, focus will likely turn in the U.S. to whether or not the film will also get an Oscar nod.

But the more pertinent question about the film is the one that Hollywood almost never asks: How could anyone think this was in good taste?


(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Adam Minter at