JinLing 13 Chai (aka War of Flowers) and Shame

I know I’ve been dumping a lot of moody funk here lately, looks like it’s not stopping tonight.  I went to a late Shame showing. I’m not sure what’s with me, but I’m only interested in mind and appetite ruining joyless amazing provocations.

I did not get the full blast of the Fassbender fandom until I watched Fish Tank.  I was impressed w/ things I’ve seen him in, Inglorious Basterds, Magneto in X-men and Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, but I don’t find him too handsome nor too good for any roles.  I didn’t find him that gorgeous in RL, then.  Fish Tank is exactly my thing, acting is seamless, storytelling is unforced, the pace is leisurely, allowing me to ease into that world, the stories of these characters and participate as a true observer. it’s very similar in theme to An Education, just grittier, in the now instead of 60s, in East End/Essex.  Fassbender floored me by his ovaries exploding magnetic physical attractiveness the second he’s on screen.  It’s a toned down, less abrasive entrance echoing that of Marlon Brando in StreetCar. He’s playing an extremely hard to commiserate character towards the end with the brain in dick guy-psychosis that requires castration, yet till the bitter end, I don’t see him as menacing nor deceitful as despicable as he is. His Connor is a very flawed, weasel in a very pleasing exterior, but I still get he is capable of tiny tender loving feelings for people he cares.  I feel the lowest of scumminess having panty-losing hots for his character…still, but his performance is so simple, direct and effortlessly spot on.  He didn’t do much with expressions or any part of his physical body, but his eyes are treasure troves, it’s all there for you to pick out, somehow he delivers everything that’s necessary for us to know about the character so thoroughly at any specific point of the story.  He’s so entirely persuasive with minimal visible effort and that’s very disturbing in the best way watching someone acts.   But then he’s playing an irresistible charmer, art imitates life much.

Shame is a joyless, lingering, profound movie and I really hate the thoughts on the human condition it’s provoked in me.  No, I didn’t go in to witness Fassdong on big screen and ‘extraordinary’ did not cross my mind at all except it is attached to a bigger chunk of flesh usu forming a whole man, but this perfectly-made junk is so devoid of care, dissolute of feeling anything but pain, an unknown traumatizing past he is mentally wrestling to contain, yet overwhelming him raw every waking moment and we audience are kept ignorant fr his entire history and causation.  We’re just presented with the present bout of disfigurement of his mind and loss of control of his body.  I watched a studly piece of flesh overtaken by a mentally debilitating addiction for 90+ minutes, I wondered every second, hinted by the fleeting damaged vulnerability inside his hollow, lifeless yet intense, almost pleading globes how excruciatingly scary it must be for him to keep up the decorum of putting the right clothes and face on, say fewest words as close to a normal man every second in public and not be a totally pathetic piece of trash he sees himself staring back at him.  Sadly, the opposite of panties shattering sexy.  Shame is almost perfect a piece of storytelling of a story unpleasant to sit through. Shame is really the best most befitting word ever to describe what I experienced.  For Fassbender, carrying around that perfect physique, displaying it unadorned, yet still every second convincing me how deplorable shitty it is to be him, in his body, doing his things.  It’s his eyes, there is that desperate intensity that attracts his ‘prey’ and when we are ‘invited’ in, we only find an emptied out, lost soul yearning for help, for feelings, for everything human he’s detached his physical existence from even when he’s doing the most human carnal acts.  He is ROBBED of his GGlobe. Clooney, u owe him wayyyy more than a flattering peen joke.   He is having some nec sex on screen, surprisingly not a lot and tamer than I expected, and though I recently find him extremely hot!Irish attractive even as a pedophile *am extremely guilty of blasphemy and iz whipping myself*, I don’t want that pathetic shell of a man near my vicinity, at times I am ashamed of myself of wishing to not know of the fact people like him is suffering and existing.  I feel just enough sympathy for his Brandon as a victim of a psychological disorder but at the same time I’m as repulsed as the character is of himself.  For the entirety of the movie, I’m sucked into his character’s damaged beyond repair psyche and it’s an ugly stinky demoralizing existence.  Mulligan is as perfect as Fassbender, there are a couple scenes, esp one she’s singing, that’ll stay with me on both the awesomeness that is Mulligan AND Fassbender.   Give them all the awards.

Before I can gather myself to pour out everything on JinLing 13 Chai, I was sitting in my closet, distracting myself playing with cedar balls until my husband was looking for me and told me it’s bedtime.  I was (very early) spring cleaning, in prep for Lunar New Year day Monday.

I am numb, overwhelmed, staring at the goosebumps from the emotions that shot through me, the same feelings watching JinLing 13 Chai/War of Flowers swarmed me once again.  The cedar balls were to be in the tissue-lined box housing my most precious possession,  qipaos handed down to me by my grandma and mother that started this catatonia.

I’ve tried reading any material on NanKing Massacre ever since I ‘treasure hunted’ a hardcover book almost hidden in my parents’ bookshelves.  I was 10, the book was filled with black and white photographs and records of the victims in Nanking Dec 1937 to Jan 1938.  I have the visuals atm, they traumatize me, very.  I flashed back to a teacher showing us a documentary of the atrocities and Unit 731 in a CN history class.  I’m still unsure…… if I were a parent of a 14 yo, would I give the consent for my child to sit through said documentary in our age of ‘now-we-know-better?!’ parenting.  I bought a copy of the late IrisChang’s The Rape of Nanking in college, I’ve tried to read it 10+ times, but there are just chapters I have to swiftly skip in fear of trauma.  I’m picking up Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem on where I left off, I doubt I can make progress.  I haven’t even touched Hu Hua-Ling’s American Goddess at the Rape of Nanjing, another book I’ve owned for years.  Then there is Yan Geling’s The Flowers of War, the source material of the movie that has been owning my life since 2012.  I begged my cousin to get herself another copy and sent me hers for Christmas. I’ve been touching its cover every day, but I still dare not open a single leaf. OTOH, there’s money I’ve spent on Amazon out of curiosity on a fiction: The Alleged ‘Nanking Massacre’. One day, I swear, I’ll be in a mental state I may wanna read, literally chew it to pieces and spit it by the mouthfuls at the writer’s face.

I had the lowest expectation of Zhang YiMou in charge of an exorbitant *most expensive CN movie EVER* state-funded budget.  Christian Bale can be a scarily great actor but JinLing 13 Chai on paper is screaming whoring the most heartbreaking traumatic events in recent Asia history to a Hollywood-hostaged international audience.  I was so damn sure I would be so devastated by the subject matter yet livid to a murderous rage by how historical accuracy was blurred ‘palatable’ (a la Nanking! Nanking!).   I was a mess after watching City of Life and Death/Nanking! Nanking! by LuChuan, a heartbreaking movie, but I was mad furious with how some crucial historical details were handled, romanticized in humanizing the IJA for a more ’rounded’ movie experience, it’s unforgivable.  It pushes me over the edge more the western critics r lauding it and Luchuan specifically on how ‘humanizing’ and ‘balanced’ story was.   I can see LuChuan’s merit as a director and I think he’s talented, I can almost understand why he needed to reinvent/reinterpret history: his motive of movie has every calculation of its target audience in mind.   I’ve lived through that movie experience and made my peace with it.  NOT doing this ever again, I’ve sworn to myself.  This part of history is untouchable for me personally with any tweaking, especially when Japan has not yet properly apologize and shown remorse for the war crimes: from a political party that is still denying the massacre’s existence, to the Yasukuni Shrine controversy….to the nomenclature as ‘the Shina Incident’.

It was a 6 wks long, tacit, tactical massacre, organized war crimes to gain swift control of then capital of Republic of China in the shortest time frame by the Imperial Japanese Army against a larger in number but deflated and disorganized, poorly commanded Nationalist Army,  KMT fled strategically, leaving the city with ‘safe zones’ of no military resistance, thinly protected by treaties ‘agreed’ with the IJA.  In early Dec, I followed 6 weibo accounts of the rare living survivors of the massacre, all of them started weibo-ing with help of their grandchildren, typing out short, difficult anecdotes of what little they remember.  In their 80s and 90s, the urgent need to tell their hallowing experiences of the 6 wks seventy four years ago is palpable.  Every time the city bell tolls in Nanjing on Dec 13th, marking the moment the 6-week massacre abruptly began and forever changing their lives and the 3000 yr old city of the richest chinese cultural heritage is one time less for them for the painful memories to rush anew.  Another account that is still tearing me up as I type is of a young social worker, weibo-ing about her village ‘granny’, a 80+ year old lady who had never married.  The young lady is volunteering as a home aid, helping her with baths.  The young lady admits she still feel nauseous at the sight of her mangled, purpled, gangrened flesh protruding in place of the lower body.  The grannie smiles all the time except when she rarely talks of what happened to her body when asked.  She was a 14 year old virgin and it’s obvious on her face she can still hear all the monstrous noises when she’s found and caught for the subsequent gang rapes, had all sorts of unmentionables, stones, scraps of wood, broken glass ramped into her lower body, she’s thought to be and looked every bit lifeless, dumped into a ditch but later rescued.  Her uterus is now the purple gangrened mangled protrusion, there must be many suffering her same fate but she’s the lucky one, she didn’t die from the ordeal. And this is just one firsthand story of many lost in passage of time.  And some J professor/author is questioning the ‘authenticity’ because there is a lack of report of ‘rape babies’. Quoting Tadao and Ohara Yasuo Takemoto, authors of ‘ The Alleged ‘Nanking Massacre’ on the ‘sadistic’ book they claimed written by Iris Chang: “Also, the book claims that from 20,000 to 80,000 women were raped. We hear of the enormous number of babies born after the fall of Berlin fathered by the Russian Army. Is there a recorded account of the flood of babies that mixed Japanese and Chinese parentage after the fall of Nanking?”  I do not know how babies can be physically conceived in mutilated beyond recognition uterus of the DEAD!! I find the wiki entries on Nanking Massacre, Nanking Nassacre denial, Second Sino-Japanese War very thorough if in need of a quick brushup myself.

I have read all of the many negative reviews on War of Flowers around its US limited release, garnering a 33% rotten tomato rating and I was so relieved, phew!, I’ll spare myself the probable insult and frustration watching.  Then there was word of mouth from a handful of very close friends, my 3 girl-cousins, all of them telling me of their experience first hand right after they walked out of the theater using very few words, but I was communicated a general hopeless, helpless, draining fatigue that is ever taxing them post movie.  A few friends, now disowned, held the opinion Mr Zhang sensationalized the role of expatriates and prostitutes, himself brownnosing deplorably for the western audience, which I thought will be closest to my opinion, before watching the movie.  Oh how I was so very wrong.

I’m a fan of Zhang ZiMou in his more personal, smaller films of few titular characters told in deft depths. I love everything he’s done pre-2000, and since then I still admire his Riding Alone for Thousand Miles.  His excessive sappy, color puking pageantry in any of his blockbusters, my big turnoffs.  Here he manages to pour every bit of control, care and heart and respect and fear over the sanctity of this most bloody chapter of history still under wraps and fogs of political propaganda and told stories of these characters with his masterful touches, I so adore, all over them, juxtaposing these intimate strokes with the hallowing, gritty war right outside the doorstep of the church and their existence.  I find him absolutely marvelous in his control every step of the way.  It’s his best work to date imho and he’s showcasing it without his usual need and pageantry of dazzling and showsmanship, but using it appropriately, in careful, controlled artistic flourishes to tell a story he, like any Chinese must felt most passionate about.  All of the characters are outlined as flawed from the very get-go.  The students can be condescending spoiled snobs, looking down on the prostitutes, the prostitutes can be gaudy and insensitive, naive and sillier than 12 yo girls, obsessed with their perfumes and rouge with the stench of death inches fr their nose yet still caring too much about sweating, their pretty silks and strings for their instruments, part of their acts, their identity as courtesans along the banks of QinHuai River, The same QinHuai running through the heart of JinLing (lit. gilded mound/mausoleum, the name for Nanjing since Warring States 3rd century BC), the exact river banks populated since the New Stone Age.  The river was romanticised by one of the most important literary piece of new wave Chinese writer 朱自清, a piece saturated with lavish description of the every detailed ornate decadence of an 1920s QinHuai River scene, eerily a short decade parting heaven and hell, a required read in many chinese literature curriculum. The most important classical chinese novel, Dreams of Red Chambers is also known as ‘JinLing 12 Chai’, in its core, the extravagant tragic tale of 12 distinctive female characters in JinLing during the Mid Qing QianLong Emperor’s rule (the very peak of Qing’s prosperity closely followed by a rapid decline later in his rule). JinLing is the most stylish city in vogue at the time, but for the ladies in the gilded cage trapped in the richest family of the land in decline, they are frankly well educated, high society sexslaves/courtesans circling around the prince/hero in his harem.  There is a pride in the ladies of JinLing 13 chai, it is almost an empowering heritage of womanhood, cradling, nourishing the city and its greatest poets, calligraphers, painters and writers; a city originated fr a mention by the General of Chu who invaded the blood stained city fr the hands of Wu, with Wu in fateful turn forcefully took it from the weaker Yue prior during the Warring States, the irony.  JinLing has been the city of intoxicating lights for centuries, the beating cultural heart of middle kingdom.

Bale’s John Miller is a scoundrel, and there’s still a tardy bit of sleaze in him till the very end after he’s attained ‘sainthood’.  The prostitutes did a pivotal heroic act, yet who wouldn’t, in their place?!  In very simple strokes, Zhang manages to make me unknowingly step into every single character’s shoes, and made the same decision at every turn as they did.  I didn’t see any glorification, but I feel human, empowered of knowing it’s just in our very blood and DNA. That’s even true for the Japanese soldiers, who am I to judge I won’t present the ugliest side of humanity under the orders and years of militaristic training and desensitization in the middle of a gruesome battle?!

I am digusted and insulted by many negative reviews I’ve read esp those I find shamefully ignorant jabbing it lacks a balance pov, demonizing the IJA. I can’t fathom who these ppl think they were to criticize what a revered director chooses to focus in his storytelling.  Many jabbed War of Flowers as putting an emphasis on the sappy romantic melodrama of just a few characters unnecessarily using up screen time, missing the point of giving them the thrills of more war porn or ‘the bigger picture’. For me, it’s much more accessible to grip on a few characters and from their eyes experience a fraction of the too massively overwhelming horror.  I find the romance succinct and such a congrous part of filling for the lack of humanity of the environ, contrasts with the precious moments of verve within the suffocating doom, that last glimmer of hope and light, bringing us back in full circle to the stained glass.   The reviews I’ve read are mostly drowned in political biases fixating it as a big bad wolf PRC grandiose propaganda of patriotism.  My very honest opinion: This is Zhang Yimou’s best cinematic contribution.  It’s been a long time I felt the talented director has done anything so personal,so passionately and pouring so much soul and skill in it.  It’s his very own most patriotic movie of an unspeakable history, an ode he’s singing directly and loudly to his compatriot in our language. He decidedly focused the stories on a handful of characters, but it did not diminish the monstrosity of the atrosities affecting them and thus infusing me.  I’m still in shock myself I’m having such an affected experience of the movie myself but I love every splash and flourish of the stained glass, the transparent obscurity that light can filter though, but images r mashed and unrecognizable. Its immaculate gorgeousness flawed by gunholes, they are the exact windows that our 12 yo can have a limited, brutal vision of the reality outside within its protection. Its later shattering, why can’t it be the most beautiful lingering soulbreaking sight with its symbolism of a sheltering forever destroyed in the eyes of a Catholic girl she’s most desperately holding onto in a visual memory?! yet it opens her world to the unabashed darkness of living hell?!  Silks flappered, vibrant textiles combusted in line of fire, I love if, I can picture myself and any woman to indulge in any fleeting sight of pretty girly things and reminsince on the memory of what it signifies in the grim dire reality we were shocked into.  It speaks to me instantaneously, organically, visually like the glimmers of hope amongst the abyss of devastation.  There are local mainland discord on how some find Zhang YiMou tactless,  focusing the story as if prostitutes and a ruffian expat saved the Great China.  I’m soosooo disgusted with people fake criticizing armed with such shallow sinister meanness.  JinLing has always been a city of lights.  The river flows through it, cultivated a lavish culture of art, music and lustful romantic indulgences.  The fact these ladies of the night are chosen to be a focus of his movie is based on true accounts by John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin and other witnesses.  Their experience gave them a unique outlook making their sacriface most human, most natural and plausible. But that’s so missing point, I am so attached to the characters I can see myself as any one of them male or female, whore or ‘saint’. I feel every urge to make exactly the same choices in their place as they see it, there’s no leeway for self in the face of their human inflicted hell.   The art of a courtesan is looked down upon through the ages, but imo less so in JinLing, with many ‘notorious’ beauties shaking up history, bathed by its waters in true form of female power. These women take their artform most seriously, their vocation has long been serving very crucial pivotal purpose in history, without them, the milieu nurturing the literature, the music, the culture of aesthetics will never have a foothold.

I’m girlcrushing NiNi’s YuMo insanely, another proof of why Zhang YiMou is the best of his peers.  Not since GongLi have I been this floored instantaneously by a mainland actress when Zhang YiMou’s camera does its magic on a woman. And the mesmerizing thing with Ni Ni is, she’s so ordinary, almost mousy in RL. She is the scene-stealing human embodiment of everything JinLing on screen. How her qipao smoothly drapes over every inch of her softest curvy body, exactly the way it’s designed to sway, the silk as part of her being.  Her gestures and mannerisms, her native NanJingnite in speech and dialect, from her eyes, nose, lips and how she uses them ever so minutely, precisely: again,   THE personification of the Gilded Mount of QinHuai.  I can’t take my eyes off her and imo she has such a fluid chemistry with Christian Bale I have a breathtaking time watching their relationship alone and in complement to the bigger story.  Her most memorable single scene though, was the one she’s stripped of her rouge, dressed up as a 12 yo school girl in a bob do and straight blunt bangs. She’s almost stripped of everything YuMo, but her same captivating eyes are dripping of innocence, of the most angelic hopeful beauty in the face of a brutal demise…I’m crying river of tears as is. That was, of course, upped by the song at the climax.  Absolutely my favorite scene.

This is not an objective opinion, I was so viscerally blown away by JinLing Thirteen Chai and I’m not calm and stable enough to rewatch, picking on anything technical.  All I’m trying to say with sooooooo many excessive words is: I watched it, I felt and am still feeling every bits of emotion Zhang YiMou intended to evoke in me, his target audience, those who are just a generation or two away from haunting images of the atrocities to feel it in our guts. I’m still triggered to tears almost every day since. I’m not the same and I’m fine with it.

2 thoughts on “JinLing 13 Chai (aka War of Flowers) and Shame

  1. “A few friends, now disowned, held the opinion Mr Zhang sensationalized the role of expatriates and prostitutes, himself brownnosing deplorably for the western audience, which I thought will be closest to my opinion, before watching the movie.”

    I had that fear too, that it will turn into “Mr Western guy rides into town and saves the day while local people sit around feeling grateful to him”. But as it turns out, Bale’s character was helpless and not able to do much of anything most of the time. He was helpless when the Japanese army came the first time, he made a big show of draping the balcony with the Red Cross flag, but the soldiers just went ahead and tore the flag and continued chasing the girls; it wasn’t him making the ultimate sacrifice to save the girls in the end, he just helped them along. Even the getaway plan wouldn’t have worked if the father of one of the girls hadn’t brought the tools to fix the truck.

    I’m not sure I can watch the movie again, I’m tearing up just reading your write-up on it. The point where I almost stopped watching was when the girls were asking Bale what else they are expected to do besides just singing, nd he’s lying through his teeth talking about it being like a party and how there will be dancing. He’s obviously lying, the girls know he’s lying, but they’re not calling him out for it, and he knows that the girls know he’s lying, but he continues with the lie anyway. Everyone’s mantaining the charade, because, what else can you do??

    1. *HUGZ* Happy lunar new year to you if you are celebrating, or if not still sending warm wishes your way~!

      I was still a bit skeptical first half of movie, I liked it more than expected, but there are still scenes that can be done better (like the 2 ladies looking for the string) to deliver the necessary story.

      BUT I lost every ounce of control in the latter half of the movie, I was pausing almost after every scene, so overwhelmed, when the characters themselves are hit fullblown with all the harshest reality, and forced to make all the hardest choices, the scene u described is also one I almost can’t make it through, it is so breathtakingly heartbreaking, perfectly nuanced and filled with the heavy hopelessness, helplessness around, yet it’s also one of the most beautiful scene I’ve seen.

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