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From the beginning the of production of The Flowers of War, Zhang Yimou had in mind Christian Bale for the role of John Miller, the American mortician who takes on the guise of a priest during a life-changing few days while trapped in war-torn Nanjing. It was a dream for Yimou, but making it happen would be a major coup for Chinese film production.
“This is the first real collaboration with a major Hollywood star in over 100 years of Chinese film history,” notes Zhang Weiping. “Christian Bale was able to take our film to a whole new creative level through his dedication, hard work and professionalism. He was an inspiration to us all.”
For Bale, the draw lay in the story of The Flowers of War, but also in the rare chance to work with what he calls “a master director,” and to experience Chinese filmmaking from an inside perspective few in Hollywood have before. “I knew it would be a very interesting experience,” says the actor. “The subject matter of the film is something which resonates strongly for so many people. And I certainly thought I wasn’t going to get another chance to do something like this again. I also
really didn’t know what to expect – which made me want to do it even more.” He goes on: “I think Yimou makes staggeringly beautiful movies with real substance to them and brilliant characters. He really balances it all. He’s a proper filmmaker. For him, everything is important. That’s why it was so great to have this chance to work with him.”
In some ways it was a homecoming for Bale, who made one of his very first films in China, coming to the fore as a 13 year-old in the lead role of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. As he began exploring the script, Bale was intrigued by the transformation of Miller, who at first is dazzled by the striking courtesans in his midst but ultimately begins to open up to those in need all around him.
“John Miller is a character who is based on a few different real Americans in Nanjing in 1937 but he’s also a fictional creation,” Bale explains. “He’s a bit of a drifter, an opportunist and a guy who likes a good time. He was trained as a mortician and it’s a burial job that brings him to Nanjing from Shanghai, but suddenly he’s stuck in the middle of the war zone.
In his head, he just wants to make a bit of cash and get out. Against what he thinks is his better judgment and his nature though, he gets swept up in the events which surround him. He finds himself going from being someone who’s just passing through, someone with no attachment to these people trying to survive, to becoming something bigger than himself, someone deeply immersed in their plight.”
Bale was especially impressed with the way Zhang Yimou wanted to emphasize the foibles and flaws of the film’s characters despite their poignant act at the climax of the film. “Probably every single adult character in the film, my character included, is someone who you’d think would never put their life on the line,” Bale notes.
“There’s seemingly nothing heroic about them. And that’s what makes this story so interesting. Ultimately these same people come up with this devastatingly brave idea of how to protect the most innocent and vulnerable among them. I found it a very human and very moving story.”
Once on the set, Bale found himself looking for ways to synch emotionally with a cast with whom he shared no common tongue. Yet, he says this actually became a source of inspiration. “Regardless of our differences, we communicated so well,” he muses. “I was truly amazed by that and by how few words are really needed to understand someone and to get to know and like them.” Yimou was impressed with Bale’s willingness to jump into such an unfamiliar situation with both feet.
“Can you imagine being on set in Nanjing, in a foreign country, surrounded by hundreds of Chinese-speaking people?” says the director. “But Christian was so engaged in the work and so professional. I learned a lot from him and feel very privileged to have worked with him. He was very serious about all the details of his character and he just wanted to understand him. His performance gave John Miller a lot of fresh life.”
Working with and without translators, Bale and Yimou were able to overcome any language barriers between them and develop a unique collaboration. “He gave me room to improvise,” says Bale. “Not to improvise wildly but within the structure of some scenes, he gave me the freedom to try different things.
I like giving choices to directors and Yimou was up for that. Some it worked. And some of it didn’t, and Yimou would say, ‘Hmm not so much…’ But other things? ‘Yeah! Great – love that! Let’s keep that in!’”
Yimou also gave Bale a lot of homework, helping to immerse the actor in a time and place far less familiar to Westerners today than their Asian counterparts. “I’d heard about the Nanjing massacre, but I didn’t really know much about it before this movie,” comments Bale. “Yimou brought me a whole stack of books and materials about the period and everything that took place. There was an incredible amount to learn.”
Sums up producer Zhang Weiping of Bale’s commitment to the project: “Christian Bale is a big star, but there’s no sense of ego about him. He was dedicated to the success of the film as a whole, and that was important. In the actual shooting, he would sometimes give the director a number of options – sometimes as many as three different interpretations for a particular scene.
We’ve never had that before. It was an unexpected but totally welcome surprise for Zhang Yimou and it brought an amazing creative freshness to the film.”
Image Courtesy of http://www.theflowersofwarthemovie.com