The Flowers of War is a historical movie that’s also making movie history – the first collaboration between a prominent director from the People’s Republic of China, Zhang Yimou, and a major Western star, Christian Bale.
Director Zhang ( Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers and the overseer of the Beijing Olympics) has described the film – the most expensive Chinese movie ever made at just under $100-million (U.S.) – as China’s attempt to gain a foothold in the $30-billion a year global cinema market.
Based on a novel by Geling Yan ( The Sent Down Girl), the film is set during the notoriously brutal Japanese occupation of Nanjing (then known as Nanking) in 1937. The movie tells the story of a cynical American mortician, John Miller (who is not in the novel), a drifter who pretends to be a priest to protect two different groups of women, teenaged convent girls and local prostitutes, who are hiding in a cathedral.
When Zhang asked his friend Steven Spielberg for advice on Western casting. Spielberg suggested Christian Bale, a recent Oscar winner (for The Fighter) and already known around the world as Batman in The Dark Knight franchise. As a 12-year-old, the Welsh-born actor beat out 4,000 other contenders to star in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), based on J.G. Ballard’s memoir of growing up in a Japanese internment camp in China.
The Flowers of War was shot on location in Nanjing, over a 164-day period, starting in January, 2011. This was the 38-year-old actor’s first trip back to China as an adult and first time working with a Chinese crew.
You were the only Western actor on a Chinese set. Did you feel isolated?
It was strange to start with but I’m used to being by myself a lot. There were two people on the set who spoke English [including the director’s daughter, Mou Mou] But filmmaking truly is a lingua franca. It’s amazing how much communication takes place without words. Yimou has a great sense of humour.
As the senior actor on a Chinese film set, you were also supposed to instruct the others. How did that work out?
That was a very strange day. I didn’t really understand the request. I’m used to a kind of filmmaking where every actor brings to the material whatever ability they’re going to bring so it was really uncomfortable. I said “I can’t do that.” I literally couldn’t bring myself to think that way. Eventually we found a middle ground where I’d take some time with the other actors, in conversation with Yimou, and discuss what we were doing in the scenes.
The language you speak in the film is a vernacular American. How much did you have to do with creating John Miller’s dialogue?
There was a collective process of stripping away most of the dialogue from the script, numerous monologues, to make it more visual through the eyes of this 12-year-old girl. The back story was that John was a dust bowl refugee who had found his way to Shanghai and then to Nanking. He’s a lapsed Catholic, who brings in whatever fragments of the catechism he can remember when he has to perform a funeral. Yimou had no knowledge of that side of things but as an actor, you try to bring to bear whatever you can to bear.
When you’re in this destroyed city, surrounded by war rubble, there’s a tremendous amount of smoke and grey in the sky, which I assume was done with CGI. What was the difference between what we see and what you experienced?
We were on this vast set which was constructed for the film. There is real smog and it was grey most of the time. There was less CGI than might be expected.
You’ve spoken about how everyone in the crew was initially very hushed because they mistakenly thought that’s what Western movie sets were like. After you got past that misunderstanding, what were the Chinese crews like to work with?
Yimou has a very talented and loyal group of people who will do anything for him. I had the impression there’s no such thing as “working hours” in China but I think they made concessions to the Westerner and and kept it to 12 hours a day.
You were a child actor yourself. What was the experience like of working with these children?
The kids were bloody funny. They were sobbing so much I was worried for them. I have a daughter myself, and I thought they were going to be ill from crying so much. But it’s a funny thing in movies – from a distance, sobbing and laughing look very much the same and sometimes you would get close and they’d be actually laughing. They were just bloody good actors, and I realized that, at 13, I had the same attitude: You could just turn it off and on. Twenty-four years later, it’s not as simple.
How conscious were you were making film history, as possibly the first major Western star in a Chinese movie? Were you recognized everywhere from the Batman movies?
It’s very surprising. I didn’t feel like this was a pioneering effort. It was the last thing on my mind. It all seemed quite normal. I have no idea if people recognized me. I spent most of my time working with the cast and crew. Occasionally, I’d go for a run and people in a field would wave to me but it was probably the novelty of seeing a Westerner out running.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Flowers of War opens in some Canadian cities on Friday.