When movie director Roger Spottiswoode ventured to China two years ago to scout locations for The Bitter Sea, a drama set in the 1930s, he was surprised at the lack of suitable buildings from the period.

Finding the past in China is extremely difficult because the cultural revolution (1966-1976) destroyed everything that was old or honorable and venerable, says the Canadian filmmaker, whose credits include the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

Even restored architecture in China was of little use to him as most is geared to tourism.

On the way to Tibet, we found a couple of old towns that were rebuilt as tourist attractions. They're old but look rather new. They're Disneyland-ish, he says.

To find suitable locations for his three-month shoot earlier this year, Spottiswoode took his 300-strong crew to far-flung locations like the spectacular Gobi desert, or Liancheng in the remote Gansu province.

Jonathan Rhys Meyer stars in the film as a real-life British journalist who in 1938 attempted to save a group of schoolchildren after witnessing the Nanjing Massacre of Chinese civilians by the Japanese military.

It was shot partly in the shadow of Beijing's Forbidden City. Not the original home to Chinese Emperors, mind you, but a life-size reproduction of the Forbidden City at the Hengdian World Studios complex in eastern China.

The $15 million independent film is essentially a Chinese film -- the local production-distribution outfit Qixinran helped produce it with key financing from China, Germany and Australia and a presale to Sony Pictures Classics for the North American rights.

Spottiswoode said the studio's participation was gutsy, given that the company is Japanese-owned, and Japanese historians have traditionally downplayed the extent of the atrocities.

He reserved special praise for the many local Chinese hired for the shoot. They dutifully trudged on and off set every day, even when they were late getting paid early on in preproduction.

No Western crew would have done that, Spottiswoode says. (The Chinese) would work pretty much any hours, as long as you put them in hotels and fed them.

Also crucial to the Chinese shoot were skilled translators.

If you don't speak a word of the language, and you're speaking to heads of departments who are English, and they have Chinese working for them who don't speak English, it can get very complicated, Spottiswoode says.