The Internationalization Strategies of Mainland Chinese Film Narration in the 21st Century: The Flowers Of War (2011) and City of Life and Death (2009)

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by Xiaoying Yue


[Please note this is a text version of a seminar presented at The School of Arts and Media at UNSW, and does not directly refer to the screening of Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home as stated in our program]

From the mid-to-late 1980s, mainland Chinese cinema came to be known throughout the world. This was due to the films of fifth generation directors such as Zhang Yimou and Kaige Chen.

Starting with 1984’s Yellow Earth, directed by Chen Kaige and filmed by Zhang Yimou, films from this period won many international awards. They also represent the start of international box office success for mainland Chinese cinema. The films of Chen and Zhang alone won six prizes at Cannes, five Oscar nominations, five BAFTA awards in London, and the top prizes at Venice and Berlin. Other members of this so-named ‘Fifth Generation’ filmmakers also earned international critical acclaim and art-house box office success in the West.

However, subsequent films did less well. And while the next, sixth generation’s lower-budget films won major international prizes, they were less successful in terms of the international market.

Nevertheless, Chinese expectations of international recognition and financial success had been raised (especially after China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001).
And the industry had even greater expectations of overseas markets when Zhang Yimou’s Hero topped the North American box office for two consecutive weeks in 2005.

Hero tells a fantasy tale of an imagined past in order to cater to global audiences.

My research suggests that the strong tension between balancing the need for global recognition and presenting a national Chinese story presents the greatest problem for Chinese cinema.

In recent years there have been attempts by Chinese filmmakers to “internationalize” their films. Two films in particular are representative of this trend: Lu Chuan’s 2009 film City of Life and Death, also known as Nanjing! Nanjing!; and Zhang Yimou’s 2011 film The Flowers of War. These films are both about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. They both had a clear international market goal from the start.

Zhang’s The Flowers of War, for example, had an international production team, it cast Hollywood actor Christian Bale in the leading role, and the English dialogue is more than 50% of the whole film.

In City of Life and Death, British actor John Paisley plays the real-life John Rabe, who was a German businessman and Nazi Party member. Rabe became known for his efforts to stop the Japanese military atrocities in Nanjing and to protect and help the Chinese civilians during the massacre.

Lu Chuan (whose Masters dissertation at the Beijing Film Academy was on the American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola) is considered by some to represent the sixth generation.
Referring to Chinese aspirations for global recognition, Lu has said:
“Maybe the hope of our generation is to use a more powerful spirit and more powerful [humanitarian] values to influence the world” (Lu Chuan, 21/04/2009, News Weekly).
Domestic and international response.
In China, City of Life and Death earned 150 million yuan (approximately US$20 million) in its first two and a half weeks. It won top prizes for directing and cinematography at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, at San Sebastian塞巴斯蒂安, Tapei and Oslo.

Flowers of War, was also a box office success: After 17 days, it had grossed nearly $83 million, making it the sixth-highest-grossing film in China. It too earned critical praise, and was nominated for or won several international prizes.

The Guardian critic Andrew Pulver described it as “a new dawn in China-Hollywood co-operation”. And he argued that: “this ambitious war film… is an attempt to turn the revolting aftermath of the 1937 Japanese assault on Nanjing into a globally friendly, putatively inspiring epic that also aims to underscore the US and China’s geopolitical mutual respect.”

But there was also negative feedback, such as the esteemed US critic Roger Ebert who criticised the narrative focus on an American priest: “Can you think of any reason the [Western] character is needed to tell his story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?”

In this paper, I ask these questions:
• What narrative strategies are adopted in these two films to solve the tension between local narrative and global recognition?
• How do they tell a story with Chinese characteristics to win international audiences?
Narrative content
As I mentioned earlier, both these films both tell a story about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
First, some historical background:
The Massacre of Nanjing, also known as the Rape of Nanjing (formerly spelled Nanking), was an episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by the Japanese Imperial Army against the soldiers and residents of Nanjing, in the Second Sino-Japanese War.The massacre occurred over six weeks starting on 13 December 1937, when the Japanese Imperial Army captured Nanjing – which was then the capital of the Republic of China.The actual figures are contested, but it is estimated that Japanese soldiers killed between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese prisoners of war and civilians, and raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women and children. A third of city was burned by the Japanese Army. It is accepted internationally as an important historical event in world history: a year ago the Nanjing Massacre Archive was officially included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Historical Sources
The Flowers of War screenplay is adapted from a novella by Yan Geling who is a Shanghai-born, US-educated writer. While Yan Geling has fictionalized history, both she and Zhang have repeatedly said that their main story and characters are based on documented, historical facts.

There are two important historical sources for both films.
1. One is American journalist Iris Chang’s 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Chang was motivated by her own grandparents’ stories about their escape from the massacre. Her book documents the atrocities and includes interviews with victims. It was the first English-language detailed account of the massacre

2. The second is the diaries of the American missionary, Minnie Vautrin.
At the time of the War, Vautrin was the acting President of a Women’s College in Nanjing.
When the Japanese arrived she chose to stay to protect her young students and to offer a refuge to thousands of other women from the city including some prostitutes.
Her diary records horrific events in detail.

The Vautrin Diaries record one particular incident in which the Japanese military demanded 100 prostitutes hiding in the college. With little choice, Vautrin allowed them to take their pick, knowing that gang rapes and brutal death awaited these so-called “comfort women” (that is, sex-slaves) in army brothels.

Yan Geling has said that the inspiration for her novel originated from Vautrin’s diary record of this event. It forms the narrative core of her novel and also Zhang Yimou’s film.
For City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan examined a larger amount of historical data when researching his film. Discussing his sources, he said: There are two books that benefited me a lot. One is the diary of Ogishima Shizuo [a Japanese soldier whose duty was to cremate the dead Japanese soldiers]. He witnessed the whole process of the Nanjing massacre. And the other is the Vautrin Diary. Vautrin … recorded in her diary… that she had communication with a lot of Japanese soldiers at that time… she found that many of them … hated the war; they were actually human, they were a son, a father or a husband. But they have become [seen as] just the tools of war. This makes me very shocked; the war has turned these humans into devils; but, in fact, they had a real heart. (Lu Chuan, 23/04/2009)

These historical records were a major reason why Lu Chuan created the character of Kadokawa Masao, a young Japanese soldier who possesses a spirit of reflection.
[clip1] The narrative content of both films presents two ways of looking at what happened.
1. There is the narrative content based on an actual historical event.
2. And there is also narrative content based on personal memories of the Nanjing Massacre: the memories of Westerners who witnessed the massacre; the Chinese civilian survivors; and the memories of Japanese soldiers.

Narrative viewpoint
The narrative viewpoint of these two films combines the objective and subjective lens and illustrate the idea that “point of view is a complex interaction between our way of viewing and what we view” (Branigan 1984:7). However, the subjective lens in both films bears the main narrative task. Like the narrator in Yan Geling’s short novel, the subjective lens of The Flowers of War is that of a twelve year old girl. She is one of thirteen students who are saved by the prostitutes who volunteer as the sex-slaves and thus knowingly go to their own death by pretending to be the innocent young girls. There is no doubt that a pure and innocent young girl’s viewpoint is an easy way to arouse audience empathy.

To make it even more poignant, she is not only a witness to the massacre but also a girl on the cusp of sexual maturity and with her future before her. When she looks at the prostitutes, she is filled with both aversion and curiosity.

The narrative perspective of City of Life and Death is more complex.
The subjective lens in Lu Chuan’s film is from two characters:
• one is the young Japanese soldier, Kadokawa Masao.
• The other is an anonymous westerner.

Of these, Kadokawa’s narrative point of view is the dominant one.
The first shot of the film is from his narrative point of view.
(clip 3) This Japanese soldier’s subjective point of view runs throughout the film.
It is used to show the conflicted inner world of a Japanese soldier in the city as the massacre is taking place. The perspective of one of the foreign invaders is the biggest difference between City of Life and Death and other Nanjing massacre films made in China.

The other subjective viewpoint, that of an anonymous westerner, is not as distinct as Kadokawa’s ‘s narrative point of view. It is important, nevertheless.It first appears in the title sequence in the form of picture postcards written in English and sent to Europe.
The pictures on the front are all tourist sites and local Nanjing artefacts– an ancient arch, the thousands of years old city walls, a temple, the region’s famous rain stones.But in the first message we see which is dated 7 July 1937, the sender writes: “The war between China and Japan is breaking out at the Marco Polo bridge…”

Each postcard tells that the war is getting closer to the sender. The last postcard states simply: “The Chinese government has retreated. The Chinese army is arriving at the gates of Nanking.” The beautiful photo of ancient Nanjing on front is in stark contrast to the subsequent disaster in Nanjing. This narrative point here represents a condemnation of the massacre, also of the war itself.
(clip 4)

In the two films, the objective viewpoint mainly shows an account of the resistance of some Chinese soldiers and the suffering of the civilians. This represents the directors’ viewpoint.

At the end of City of Life and Death, this objective viewpoint explains what happened to the main characters in the form of subtitles over their photographs. They are no longer referred to anonymously as a Chinese, a Japanese or a Westerner. All of them become real people with real lives.
(clip 5)

This treatment of the characters at the end clearly expresses the main theme of the film which is not just the horror of a particular massacre but a reflection on the nature of war itself. As Lu Chuan said: “I’m not filming the Nanjing massacre. I think we might be doing something about how people understand the nature of war.” (Lu Chuan,18/05/2009, NB Weekly News Reader).

In both films the roles of westerners are very important. But neither film presents them as a “Schindler of China” character. In these films, they are noble and brave, but they also suffer.

Narrative theme
The Bible is known as the cradle of western culture. In it, Adam and Eve [i:v] rebel [ˈrebl] against God and so are expelled from the garden of Eden. They then commence upon the road to redemption through hard work. Salvation is one of the core ideas of Christianity. Both City of Life and Death and The Flowers of War are based on an historical event.
But they do not express a universal theme of humanity. Rather, they explore the specifically Christian theme of “sin and salvation”. Through the construction of this theme, these films try to build a bridge to communicate with, and gain commercial success in, the western world

To highlight this theme of “sin and salvation”, in Zhang’s film the two Roman Catholic priests in the Yan Geling’s novel are replaced by a fictional American character named John Miller and a young Chinese acolyte. In the novel, the older priest is a missionary who did selfless missionary work in China for many years. In the movie, however, Christian Bale’s John Miller character is a selfish man who comes to China only for the money. To make his path to salvation more persuasive, the film makes him a mortician. When a Catholic priest dies in the Japanese bombing, John Miller poses as a priest. He leads the dead priest’s funeral procession and, after using his skills as a mortician to embalm him, buries him.

But Miller is not motivated by the suffering of war victims. Rather, he demands payment from the mourners. He stays in the church only to enjoy the dead priest’s comfortable lodgings while waiting for the Church to pay him. We see him flirting with the prostitutes who come to the church for refuge. In short, he is a corrupt rogue. However, when the Japanese Army rushes into the church and the young female students’ lives are in danger, Miller stands up for the first time and shouts “STOP”. He thus starts on his path to salvation.

Some Chinese critics accuse The Flowers of War of telling the story of the stereotypical, tall Westerner protecting weak Chinese lambs from slaughter. In fact, John is not so much a saviour as someone who is himself getting salvation. To my mind, there is little doubt that the main characters in this film are the thirteen women prostitutes. We learn that they are from the Qinghai River that runs through central Nanjing. During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1800), many infamous brothels were located along the Qinhuai River. The prostitutes were celebrated for their beauty, talent and integrity. Because of this historical context, the Qinhuai River women in Zhang’s film mean they have the possibility of nobility. Their path to salvation is the core theme of the film.

I shall now look more closely at Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, and how it tells the story. Lu Chuan has explained:“I feel that we have a mission to let the world accept the facts [of the Massacre], so we choose to tell the story in a way that can be accepted by the outside world” (Everyday. News, 2009-04-18)

His film shows the process of a Japanese soldier achieving salvation in close detail.
After witnessing the horror of what happened to the Chinese prisoners-of-war and civilians, including the so-called “comfort women” in the massacre, the Japanese soldier Kadokawa Masao eventually releases two Chinese civilians who were about to be killed.
Overcome by feelings of guilt for what the Japanese Army has done, he then commits suicide.

The film also shows the process of salvation of Tang Tianxiang, a fictional Chinese character who is one of John Rabe’s secretaries.

At first, Tang betrays some injured Chinese soldiers in the “safe (de-militarized) area” to the Japanese in return for his relatives’ safety. However, his betrayal brings greater disaster to the entire safe area, including his relatives. Later, leaving the possibility of survival to others, he accomplishes his own salvation.In addition to the theme of salvation, City of Life and Death reflects upon war itself through its narrative style.

Narrative style
In terms of narrative style The Flowers Of War and City of Life and Death differ completely.

City of Life and Death refuses a dramatic narrative structure. The film is black and white, in order to represent a realist sense of history. In this film, no one character plays the leading role. Although the actual conflict was between the Japanese military and the Chinese civilians and westerners, a good deal of filmic space occupies the reflection of the young Japanese officer. Going beyond a nationalist perspective, City of Life and Death aims to reach a dialogue with the global through its reflection of war and with a rigorous attitude to historical facts.

The Flowers of War, however, uses a classical Hollywood narrative style. Closely structured around the core drama conflict of the Japanese military demand for thirteen female students, its screenplay carefully employs a series of dramatic plot points. These plot points slowly push the conflict to a climax. The prostitutes use their cosmetic skills as artists: using their make-up, they disguise themselves as the young girls who the Japanese military demanded and to take the place of thirteen students. At this point the climax comes. The dramatic climax of the conflict is also the climax of the emotion. It is also the time for the realization of the theme of salvation of this film.
(Clip 7)

From the narrative techniques that The Flowers of War and City of Life and Death use to tell a Chinese story that would be understood by audiences globally, we can see that in the 21st century, Chinese cinema has employed several strategies.

• First, choose a Chinese subject that are not totally unknown to the global audiences.
• Second, attach importance to western perspectives in the construction of narrative content, viewpoint and theme.
• Third, imitate the Hollywood classical narrative style or use a narrative lens that is beyond a nationalist perspective.
While both films did extremely well in both domestic and overseas markets, the design of the viewpoint of a Japanese soldier in City of Life and Death caused widespread controversy in China. In particular, Chinese scholars have argued about its narrative viewpoint .

Chinese historians point out that there is no record of any Japanese soldiers committing suicide because of feeling guilty during the massacre: “this proves that, the humanity of Japanese soldiers as represented by the Kadokawa character is invented by the Chinese director…” (Sima Ping. “Nanjing film” when nationalism and liberalism [EB/OL]. http: //blog. ifeng. each other again com/article/2655397 ht-.)

Wang Yichuan(Dean of the School of Arts at Peking University) believes that the reflectiveness of the Japanese soldier is an entirely imaginary cross-cultural dialogue between China and Japan. He points out that there was no Japanese involvement in the making of the film and that Lu Chuan’s understanding of Japanese culture is limited.

All the same, Wang Yichuan still believes that City of Life and Death does try to set up a cross-national and cross-cultural dialogue: “For the first time, a Chinese anti- war film stands on a higher platform of global universal values and launched a cross-cultural dialogue globally beyond the perspective of a single nation and [also beyond] the perspective of cultural entertainment” (Imagined cross-cultural dialogue in civil society — City of Life and Death, in the visual field of artistic vision, Film Art, Vol.,No. 4,2009).

There are also Chinese scholars who argue that the film’s change in narrative viewpoint from a specifically Chinese perspective to a Japanese perspective is rooted in a Chinese attitude of rationality, confidence and equal dialogue with the world. (Liu Chang, City of Life and Death: the perspective of “great power mentality”, Gui zhou Social Sciences, Vol. 244 ,No. 4)

Clearly, for mainland Chinese cinema, how to tell a story that is accepted and understood by both local and global audiences remains a significant issue.


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