In 100 years of Chinese film, The Flowers of War is the first major title to feature a western movie star. It earned a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, and is China's entry for Oscars.
Budgeted at $100 million and paid for by the Chinese government, Flowers of War stars Oscar-winner Christian Bale as John Miller, an opportunist mortician on the run in 1937 as the Japanese are invading the province of Nanking, now known as Nanjing. The Japanese occupation led to the deaths of thousands of Chinese citizens and came to be known by some as the Rape of Nanking or the Nanjing Massacre.
In the film, which has a limited U.S. release this week before opening nationwide in 2012, Bale's character must save a group of schoolgirls from the clutches of the Japanese. At the same time, he falls in love with a Chinese courtesan.
Bale and Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who communicated through an interpreter while making the film, talked with Reuters about overcoming cultural barriers and revisiting an infamous episode of China's past. (The interview took place before Bale's recent run-in with Chinese officials.)
Q: This is your first time working with a western film star. Did the collaboration meet or defy your expectations?
Zhang: First, I'm amazed at how low key and humble Christian is. The stereotype that Chinese have of Hollywood actors is they probably have an entourage and assistants. So that's definitely changed how I viewed Hollywood actors. And also Christian didn't want to stay in a five star hotel either. He lived right above me, lived with everybody else, with the crew members. And another thing is Christian gave up his weekends to work with us because we work seven days a week.
Bale: But this seven-day week schedule became something I quite enjoyed cause I liked the momentum. Yimou is top dog in his profession, and he genuinely seemed to have a great deal of humor and laughter on the set. I didn't always know what the laughter was about but I would laugh with them. I hope they're not all laughing at me! I felt surrounded by good friends and even if I didn't understand nuances of what was being discussed, I got the essence in the presence of people.
Q: Do you find that your shared experience in filmmaking was enough to communicate despite the language barrier?
Bale: There would be moments where Yimou would come to me and we would work it out between the two of us. And sometimes with a scene it's very small adjustments that were being asked for and I could understand from body language. And I always was convinced Yimou spoke a little bit of English, more than he ever let onto. So we'd experiment and see how it works out and sometimes it did and sometimes it didn't.
Q: How are Western actors different than Chinese?
Zhang: Each line Christian offered three or four different ways, which is very unusual because Chinese actors normally cannot pull that off. Screening the film for a western audience I realized that the first one-third of the movie, audiences would laugh at Christian's lines. That actually surprised me because when I wrote the script in Chinese, I didn't think that was humorous, but clearly Christian added other layers to it.
Q: I understand Zhang asked you to stand before the cast and give them acting tips but it proved awkward.
Bale: I always think it's bad to try to alter anybody else's experience. Apart from that, it's not my job. That's the director's job. And I love very much working with actors who either have no experience or very little experience. I like to try to avoid getting any technique into my acting because I feel like the more known an actor gets, you really have to be exceptional to maintain that feeling of freshness and vitality and enthusiasm instead of falling back on your usual tricks.
Q: Steven Spielberg recommended you for the part after working with you years ago on Empire of the Sun when you were a child. Did working with kids on this movie take you back?
Bale: Some of the girls would say to me, 'I would never want to act ever again in my life, this is it.' And I would say to them, 'That's what I said. That's exactly what I said when I was your age.' The thing that I liked so much was the freshness that they brought in terms of this is something new but there's no consideration of this being anything that they would continue with.
Q: The movie is set around an atrocity by the Japanese that rivals in brutality what the Nazis did in Europe. Why do you think the world hasn't held the Japanese accountable?
Zhang: Maybe the international community doesn't know much about Nanjing because China, at that time, was really far behind, and they didn't have enough voice or power to actually speak out for themselves. For me, rather than arouse sad feelings, the goal of the movie is to make people see the good side of humanity and bring peaceful feelings to an audience.