Christian Bale turns in a performance that is exceptional even for his own outstanding track record in Zhang Yimou’s epic WWII story The Flowers of War, alternately titled Heroes of Nanking.
This movie should come with a lot of trigger warnings, for war violence and rape. It is about the rape of Nanking during the Japanese invasion of China, and tells the true story of the heroism of a small handful of individuals who acted selflessly to spare the lives of a small group of schoolgirls besieged in the middle of occupied Nanking.
Among the girls’ rescuers were a small group of courtesans hiding in the church basement. This poem, based on the 45th Psalm, is addressed to them, in the voice of Christian Bale’s character, an alcoholic undertaker who took refuge in the church for entirely selfish reasons, but was moved to try to help the girls in the end. Bale’s character uses his skills as an undertaker to help the courtesans change their appearance to look more like young schoolgirls.
The Japanese have ordered the girls to attend a party at their encampment “to sing” and in so doing, to abandon the safety of the church. Unbeknownst to the Japanese soldiers, the girls are smuggled out and the courtesans, dressed as schoolgirls, take their place – with shards of mirrors hidden in their long sleeves for self-defense, anticipating gang rape and murder at the party (having seen what happened when two of their friends were grabbed by soldiers on the road).
My heart has been stirred from a long silence, friends.
I speak to you out of a profound regret.
My art is at your service in this gamble.
You are the bravest of heroes of Nanking,
and in all your actions, grace and deftness show.
For who you are, our Father blesses your names.
Gird your makeshift weapons well, like a soldier,
for in these shards of glass resides your grandeur.
And with these shining blades concealed, pass onward,
stand tall in the name of honor and justice,
and ready your right arm to strike at their hearts,
slash with the edges sharpened by hot feelings –
wound the men who mistake you for easy prey –
unleash havoc into the heart of their camp.
Your place in history will shine forever.
Your names will never perish here in Nanking.
You loved kindness and rejected cruelty.
For this you walk in beauty, all anointed
with scents of joy in fellowship and pleasure.
Orchids, myrrh and jasmine, all twined together,
embellish your silk trains like songbirds’ laughter.
From cherrywood filigree palaces spring
the sensitive notes of lutes to answer you.
Princesses all of you, Nanking’s cherished ones,
and a rare prince walks among you in disguise.
Look on, children, and give them their due regard,
forget your prejudice and honor their souls.
Your countrymen yearned for their beauty and grace,
for these were the mistresses of their proud hearts,
and men of distinction bowed low at their feet.
Daughters of the graces, with ornate tokens
the city’s magnates sought to win their favors.
Yet a princess’s treasure is not in pearls,
nor the gold filigree in her fine raiment.
In coarse, modest garments they are led away –
maidens in name, they consent to take your place.
They who have made of life beauty and gladness
step out to the front with a spring in their step,
knowing their choices have meaning, even now.
In this city’s stead, and in their memory,
you, too, will live like princesses, proud and free.
Through you, their names will live for generations.
For the path they choose this day, acclaim them all.