Wency&Yajing——Explore Semiotics: The Flowers of War

Explore Semiotics: The Flowers of War

1.Plot Description

The story happened in Nanjing, 1937. Japanese Imperialists invaded Nanjing, which was the capital of China at that time. Nanjing was occupied and inhuman and brutal massacres by Japanese happened every day. At that time, only one Catholic Church was not occupied because Japanese would not touch westerners according to customs. Girls in church school, prostitutes of Qinhuai River where was the famous place of brothels, soldiers and wounded soldiers who didn’t manage to escape because of saving those girls and an American called John who was an okuribito entered the church successively. At first, the prostitutes only wanted John to take them out of Nanjing. The leader of the prostitutes, named Yumo, even flirted with John for her sake.

However, the church was not safe forever. Brutal Japanese smashed their way into the church and attempted to rape the girls. John showed them the flag of Red Cross which symbolled peace and needed to be respected by anyone in the world. However, Japanese just ignored it and broke the flag. The prostitutes first hided in the safe basement. The girls were afraid that Japanese would find them and brought the Japanese to the second floor and saved the prostitutes. Soldiers sacrificed themselves to save the girls. However, the Japanese forced the girls to perform in the show which celebrated that Japanese occupying the girls’ hometown. Everyone knew that it would lead them to death. The girls didn’t want to be insulted and decided to commit suicide. John and the prostitutes stopped them. The 12 women who were generally despised and hated, with the boy who worked in the church and always nervous, inspired their heroic and courage in the war. They decided to substitute the girls to death. In the end, Yumo fell in love with John and she wanted John to promise her to take these girls out of Nanjing and to a safe place. John promised that when this war was over, he would to find Yumo.

However, everyone will be clear that, he couldn’t, forever.


2.Semiotic Analysis

2.1 Shot

close-up shot

(0:13)The movie began with the scenes where victims were running and fleeing. The whole city was filled with terror and danger. People in Nanjing who had nothing to protect themselves could only run, or waited to be killed at any time. After a few second, the director gave a close-up shot to this running girl. From her facial expression, audience couldn’t feel her tiredness after running and escaping for at least one whole week. Instead, they could feel the sense of helplessness and hopelessness. That kind of fear was far more than physically hurt and hunger, or thirst.

(1:23)This is a Japanese military officer who came to the church after Japanese soldiers smashing into the church. He sat in front of the girls and listened to their chorus quietly. From his eyes, audiences could not see any chaos or intends to kill, let alone kind and sympathy. Instead, his eyes were almost the same as an older who went to the church at weekends and enjoyed being penitent for his faults. This long-lost peace brought audience to think, if the Japanese felt regret and stopped their attempts to attack these girls? However, the plot happened in the next few minutes let the audience down. The seemly nice Japanese military officer wanted the girls to perform a show in Japanese Army camps. That was similar to bring the sheep to the house of the wolves. Don’t you think this close-up shot seems to be a sarcasm?

Long shot

(0:33)This long shot first gave audience the impression of the church. You can divide the frame into two parts, the left and the right, separated by the fragile wall of the church. Outside the wall was smoke of gunpowder and relic. Inside the wall was the Red Cross which represented peace and undestroyed church which seemed to be the last place for survival for people in Nanjing. The left and right formed a sharp contrast and in the center of the frame there was a decoration which seemed not to be in harmony with others about color. Like the girl who wore red in Schindler’s List, the director was very clever when using the contrast of the color. The director wanted the audience to focus on the different color when they saw the frame immediately. That color of the Red Cross, highlighted the idea of peace in the war, and hence strongly condemned the inhuman Japanese because they blasphemed the sacred Red Cross.

(1:16)This is a long shot in the church. The girls were standing on the stage, singing the chorus while some Japanese military officers sitting and listening quietly. They were in the relationship between seeing and being saw. This long shot frame clearly reflected a kind of conflict between the two group of people in a harmony scene. The light from the top window shed on the girls. They belonged to the church and they symbolized peace. The Japanese military officers, although they sat quietly, they didn’t belong to the church and they were in the dark. That implied that their roles and nature didn’t change because of the chorus. They were still inhuman Japanese militarists and their action later proved it.

Close shot

(1:38)This frame also reflected a relationship of seeing and being saw. The director chose the close shot of the John’s back and long shot of the Japanese army. The focus was on the close shot while the long shot was blurred. This could reflect John’s mind to some extent. He hated inhuman Japanese militarists and looked down on them. He couldn’t even recognize their faces. Their figures just symbolized the brutality and ruthless.


2.2 Light and color

(0:24)This is the first transition from the cold tone to warm tone. In this movie, all the scenes which were outside the church and described the war were used cold tone and mainly used blue. All the scenes inside the church except being broke into by Japanese used warm tone and mainly used yellow and red. Cold tone created an atmosphere of despair and fear. Warm tone created an environment of peace and hope. They shed a little light in the endless dark. This strong contrast of color was obvious throughout the movie.

(1:12)The light through the window shed the only light in the dark. The amazing light passed through the Catholic Cross, which resembled holy and religion. The light also reflected the hope, like the only light in the dark which needed to guide others to escape. However, this seemed to be a sarcasm. The combined effect of Catholic Cross and light didn’t lead everyone in the church to safety. But, the nature of humanity of the prostitutes and soldiers saved all the girls. Maybe the light enlightened them. Maybe the light indeed gave them hope. Anyway, as long as the girls could be saved, hope would never disappear.

(1:16)The light here was great. Not only as said before, it became a contrast between girls in light and Japanese militarists in dark, but also resembles a fragile hope for everyone in the church. The city was destroyed, their hometown disappeared, all the sky outside the church were not as blue as before. However, they could still see the bright light in the church. That light indeed came from the horrific Nanjing. This represented hope. Hope still existed. And if hope existed, they would never be defeated.

(1:43)This was one of a few cold tones used in church. The girls didn’t want to be insulted by Japanese and they decided to suicide. They even couldn’t be saved in church. There was no doubt that they almost lost their last hope. So, the director used the cold tones to exaggerate this feeling of hopeless and fear.

(1:56)The light on the mirror was very critical in the movie. They were prostitutes, not armed soldiers. When they decided to meet death, they wanted to hurt Japanese as much as they can, rather than died with no meaning. The only weapons they could have were the broken mirror. In this shot, a light shed on the sharp mirror. This could also resemble hope and determination of the prostitutes. They were not afraid of death and they are brave to sacrifice themselves and let the girls to be alive. The usage of the light also reflects kinetic anaphone. The sudden light on the mirror made audience felt the scene that the prostitutes used this ‘knife’ to kill at least one Japanese. Audience could feel that action with the sudden light.


2.3 FOV (Field of View)

(0:35)This is the look down view from the girls. They were staring at the prostitutes from the little hole in the church’s window. It’s like God’s perspective and the girls just scanned the prostitutes. Because they thought church was clean and prostitutes were not respected by them. The girls looked down on them and hated to be together with them. However, this became a contrast with what happened next. When the Japanese broke into the church. The girls were afraid that Japanese would find the basement and hurt the prostitutes, they gave up that precious hiding place and led the Japanese away from the prostitutes as possible. In the war, they earned each other’s respect. And in the last, it was the prostitutes who weren’t respected by them initially saved their lives.

(0:57)This is the lookup view. Usually looking up means respect. By rationality, Japanese shouldn’t violate the church because it was the house of the Lord. However, the inhuman Japanese militarists ignored the common sense and committed crimes. This was totally different from respecting the Red Cross. This look up view provided another sarcasm.

(1:08)In the end, one Japanese soldier cut the flag and it fell to the ground. Initially, this flag resembled their hope and future. However, it was destroyed ruthlessly. The cut of the flag resembled despair and fear instead.

(1:25)It’s the same hole, and the same girl. However, this time, the shot was fast. This became a contrast with the girl staring at the prostitutes in the beginning. At that time, the girls thought the church was peaceful and safe so that they could scan the prostitutes. However, after the disaster in church, they could only see the horrible Japanese soldiers with fear and despair. So, the shot was far faster than the previous shot.

(1:34)This is the lookup view. The horrible Japanese soldiers walked to the church with their guns. This shot focused on the gun and looked up at it. This angle added tensity and fear. This tensity came from high-hierarchy and reflected social class and historic context at that time. Fully-armed Japanese soldiers met unarmed American, minor girls and bare-handed prostitutes. It seemed that they could not compete with Japanese soldiers. However, they had faith, love and humanity. The unity and other nice qualities created a seemly impossible living chance for the girls.


2.4 Clothes

(0:39)The clothes in the movie could resemble their social status. Yumo is the prostitute. So, she and other prostitutes all wore makeup and sexy Cheongsam, which symbolized prostitutes at that time. Even in the war, they were still delicately dressed. This reflected that even in the war, they cared much more about themselves first, and this wasn’t influenced by the external environment. The beauty was their advantage and capital, and there was no exception even in the war. In contrast, all the girls in the movie wore their suites and their clothes could reflect their status as well.

The change of John clothes could also reflect his change in status. Initially he was an ordinary American and his real job was an okuribito. In other word, saving strangers, especially foreigners were not his duty. He came to the church only because he needed the safe place as well. Although he was still safe outside the church, the Japanese didn’t kill the westerners. However, he volunteered to be the priest later and protected the unarmed girls and prostitutes, with the help of his identity of a westerner. He wore the priest uniform and took the responsibility. For John, his transition still resembled the arouse of humanity and this would never disappear even in the war.

2.5 background music and sound effect


(0:16) The background music starts from a human voice. The sound of string music is relatively weak at this time and several sound effects including the sound of guns and cannon are added. The sound of guns and cannon here are reproduced sounds which are tokens with an indexical function signifying the original sounds of guns and cannon happened in a real war. For the audience, the effect of human voice and the background of the story (the war) operate in a recursive way which spirally increases a sense of solemn and stirring. The human voice also has a symbolic function which represents the victims in the war.


(0:27) The string music starts to intensify at this point. The intensification of the music symbolizes the intensification of the conflict and war (This is the point where the Japanese soldiers burst into the church which was supposed to be protected during the war in the video). The other interesting point is the music plays in a major tone and is constantly being intensified. By giving the audiences a sense of grandness, the string music somehow symbolizes the bravery and the fearlessness of the people fighting against the invader at the wartime and the beauty of humanitarianism happening at that time. The contrast between the sorrowful human voice and the background string music indicates a fact that although people are brave, fearless, kind and generous in front of the disaster and mystery happening in their lives, they are nevertheless hopeless and vulnerable under a huge difference between power from the two sides.


(0:55) The sound of the Japanese soldiers hitting the door brutally is produced right after the sound of the cannon in the last second. As for me, this sound serves both an indexical and iconic function where the latter has a degree of resemblance with the sound of cannon. It thus represents the violence, atrocity of the soldiers during the wartime.


(1:09) At this point the Red Cross flag is cut off by the soldier. In order to emphasize the sound of the flag falling onto the ground, other sound effects and music are eliminated here. The excluded emphasize of the sound symbolize the despair of the students of seeing the last hope is wiped out and the John’s unbelieving and then total disappointment towards the Japanese military who breaks the international rule without maintaining the last humanity.


(1:16-1:38) All the previous sound effects and music are substituted by the chorus of the students from 1:16. The anthem symbolizes generousness, love, vulnerability, kindness and humanity which contrasts strongly with the scene including explosion, kill going through. The students at this point also stands for thousands of children, teenagers that are innocent, pure and are supposed to be protected and receive better education but are finally killed brutally during the war time.

2.6 The performance of actors and actress.


(0:39) Ni Ni, the actress gives a strong and content rich eye contact with the camera within this scene where she puts indifference but at the same time survey and tease in the expression. The tease is an indication of her instinct being a prostitute, but at the same time her intelligence, uniqueness and a disillusion with the mortal world is symbolized in this expression which gives the audiences a space to imagine her previous experience. Besides, Ni Ni’s idiosyncrasy matches well with the character where she has a strong image among Chinese audience for being both free from vulgarity and also exceedingly fascinating and charming.


(0:41-0:42) For me the scene of Yu Mo and John flirting with each other is highly symbolic. While Yu Mo expresses a slight and subtle tease (probably as she used to do with other males), John conveys a strong sense of aggressiveness, activeness and desire to be in possession. The module the male and female characters apply in flirting connotates an embedded hierarchy where women are sexualized and have their value evaluated only by being beautiful. Men are always assumed to be active while women are always passive and waiting. This reflects a strong stereotype which deeply rooted in our society and culture.  


(1:05) facial expression of John conveys multiple meanings. He is at a stalemate with the Japanese soldiers with students he protects behind him. His facial expression indicates firm, fearlessness but also beseech, unbelievability and disappointment. This is an epitome of humanity in which he knows for sure that he needs to protect the students and at first, he believes the soldiers won’t kill the students especially in the church. But at the same time while he is having an eye contact with the soldier through which he infers that the soldiers are going to attack the students, he began to show despair and disappointment in his eyes.


(1:53)The scene where Yu Mo takes off her clothes in front of John is before the day when the 12 prostitutes are going substitute the students to death. Her giving her body to John seemingly indicates her love to John. But by identical her body to herself as a person, this scene connotates a gender inequality where women are objectified as beings towards the patriarchy society.


(1:23)The facial expression of the officer while he is listening to the anthem is peaceful and thoughtful. For me the first thing that came into my mind is that this symbolizes the humanity deeply rooted in the soul of those invaders. The officer is temporally escaped from violent and brutal massacre and through the anthem he feels guilty, he confesses and contemplates, the anthem brings him, and also the other soldiers involves in this inhuman with a sense of nostalgia back to their instinct of live, kind, love, generousness and family. However, after the later narrative provided by the film which indicates that the officer is the one who decide to rape and kill the students in the name of performance, the facial expression, on the contrary, becomes a symbol of hypocrisy.


(2:12)“I’ll be back to find you.”
The actor’s lines are seemingly a paradox since both John and Yu Mo know that they would never be able to see each other. But the impossible promise more or less symbolizes a spirit of not giving up hope even under hopeless situation.

2.7 Materials as symbols


(0:08) The first scene in this video contains three symbols which are interdependent to indicate the background of the story. The diffused smoke, without the fire and the wood, would only indicate a foggy, dismal weather to the audiences. Similarly, the fire itself can generate different signifiers in the chain of connotation. But these three symbols regulate each other into a specific larger signifier from which the audiences can infer that there is a war going on at this place. At the same time, the fire, having a striking contrast with the background, also indicates hope and fighting will under desperate situation. To be sure, the meaning at this level would be less easy to generate without knowing that there is a war.


(1:12)The crucifix in the church is highly semiotic here. It indicates confession for a sense of guilty as well as unconditionally kindness and love. While in Christian, killing people is the first thing to be forbidden, here a sense of guilty stands for the brutal military who kill millions of people during the invasion. The kindness and love, on the other hands, provides an ironic function because even at the most holy and pure place, i.e., the church, the Japanese soldiers are not showing any regret of raping, killing the vulnerable students.





The flags of the Red Cross in both of the two scenes are tokens from the original sign of the Red Cross society. Beyond their indexical function, they are highly symbolic in this video. While the Red Cross society symbolize the beauty of humanitarianism, generousness and rescue, a striking contrast is thus shown later when the soldiers burst into the church and wiped out the last hope of those helpless students.


(1:16)The students are standing on the stage of the church, immediately reminds the audiences of the choir. The whole scene is very peace and holy. However, by knowing those who are sitting under the stage are the brutal soldiers and by connect with the background of the story from which we know this happens in the wartime, this scene then gives us a huge sense of irony. The soldiers, on the one hand, are pretending to be kind peaceful under the pure atmosphere, on the other hand, the relationship of speculating and being speculated indicates a hierarchy and a difference of power in each side.               


(1:55) For me this is the most semiotic point in the whole video. What the prostitutes are holding in their hands are knives alike in shape which serves an iconic function. It thus stands for a larger type of weapon which people use to fight against the invader and protect themselves. However, by looking at the whole scene carefully, one will recognize that the knife is made by mirror, which used to be a tool for the prostitutes to complete their make-up. The mirror not only symbolizes beauty of the prostitutes, but also infers an inferiority, enslavement and objectification of women. The broken mirror, on the other hand, indicates the aggressiveness of women who are assumed to be vulnerable and passive to stand up and fight against the inequality.



3.About the director

By understanding some background at this point, we will be able to select specific features in the movie that would stand for a highly stylized “Yimou Zhang interpretation”.
Before becoming a director, Zhang majored in photography in Beijing Film Academy. Therefore, he is known for being demanding about the visual effect of each frame where he is serious about the composition of pictures, selecting scenes, the matching of colors and highly striking but accurate contrast within specific scenes. He uses a lot of long shots which are relatively more infectious, rather than telling a story, he focuses more on the visual effect of each frame and the connection between frames, further, he loves fuzzy processing which helps the whole scene reaching onto an annex of symbolism.
In his workpieces, Zhang is known for being interested in emphasizing the spirit and power of ordinary or inferior people. He also describes women’s position in different time periods in China in his other works where in his works, women are assigned an image of fighter against the miseries but at the same time are constrained under a patriarchal society where they have to be speculated by males. Meanwhile, Zhang is also a romantic artist who likes to express some sense of warmness, love and all forms of beauty.
e.g.1 A demanding utilization of lighting, angle, the actress’s dressing, make-up and eye contact. A token of the type of Zhang’s being demanding on the visual effect.

e.g. 2 The flirting scene, a token of the type of Zhang’s being romantic.

e.g.3 A striking contrast of peace and war, darkness and lightness, gloom and frame each of which leaves spaces for audience to connotate further inference and interpretation.



4.About the audiences

According to Bakhtin, dialogized utterance, the minimal unit of expression and meaning, is an expression in a living context emerging from a background of prior statements and anticipates other responses in a Janus-like structure of past and future, self and others. The dialogic principle extends beyond local situations of expression to the continuum of reinterpretations in cultural forms through historical time.

Based on different education background, the cultural context they live in, the ages, social classes, etc., different audiences therefore will have different understandings of the film.
For most Chinese audiences, they share a same knowledge and education background of the history where the whole country was repressed and were fighting together against the fascism. Therefore, at least for the first time when they are watching the film, most of them would more or less unconsciously select scenes describing the brutality and violence of the war, the beauty of humanity of each individual in the wartime, the power of ordinary people. However, even though Chinese audiences are sharing a similar context while watching this film, people in different age, gender groups or different social classes will percept differently. For example, there are more and more young women in China who are becoming aware of women’s value and power in the contemporary era. Therefore, they might be offended by seeing, for example, Yu Mo takes off her clothes and is ready to devote herself to John before the day she would substitute the students to death. Also, they will also focus on the evaluation of women’s value when they are in different occupation, i.e., prostitute and student. And the debate about how the film depicts women is probably one of the reason that this film didn’t get expected award on an international arena (Frankly, feminist movement and the thinking of women’s value and their position in most Western country is still ahead of China).  

The understanding of the prostitutes volunteering to substitute the students to death is also understood differently. On the one hand, some audiences would interpret this as an arguing against a traditional stereotype of the prostitutes and as a compliment of their sacrificing spirit in front of death. On the other hand, nevertheless, some audiences begin to think about a hidden hierarchy and inequality between people under different occupation. They would, on the contrary, argue that under the seemingly beauty of humanity is an unavoidable rule that the inferiority should always sacrifice for the superiority. Also, the idea that prostitutes is inferior to the students is also considered highly modernized after the enlightenment according to postmodernism where a binary opposition between good and bad, rational and irrational, dignity and lowliness, etc., operated by a current knowledge system, is manipulating every individual in this society.



  1. Irvine, M. (2018). Remix and The Dialog Engine of Culture.
  2. Tagg, P. (1999). Introductory notes to the semiotics of music. Liverpool/Brisbane. http://www. tagg. org/xpdfs/semiotug. pdf (consulted: feb. 2007).
  3. The analysis of the style of Yimou Zhang’s works (n.d.). Retrieved February, 27, 2018. From https://wenku.baidu.com/view/487cb792dd88d0d233d46a9b.html
  4. The encyclopedia of Yimou Zhang. (n.d.). Retrieved February, 27, 2018. From http://zhangyimou.h.baike.com/article-225565.html