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From internationally celebrated director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers) comes a story of love and war – and a band of outcasts who emerge as unlikely heroes from the shadows of a city’s occupation.
Shot over 5 months in the most extensive production ever undertaken in China, the film recreates the reality of Nanjing after Japanese troops invaded the Chinese city, setting off one of the most shocking episodes of civilian suffering in the modern history of war. Yet The Flowers of War is not so much about the deadly battles in the street as it is about all the life that continues to go on behind the closed doors of a city in hiding.
With the cast arriving from all corners of China and the world, production of The Flowers of War began on January 10, 2011 in Nanjing, as the filmmakers undertook the immense task of transforming the modern city into the battle-torn former Chinese capital of 1937.
Although much of the story unfolds inside the walled church where John Miller joins up with a ragtag group of children and courtesans, Zhang Yimou wanted to capture the full-force reality of the chaos that surrounds them. To accomplish all this, he and producer Zhang Weiping brought in a crack international crew, several of whose members would be drawn from their previous movies.
These include cinematographer and six-time Yimou collaborator Zhao Xiaoding; sound designer Tao Jing (a veteran of nine films); film-editor Meng Peicong (here marking her third collaboration); and notably unit production manager, Huang Xinming, who has worked consistently and in various capacities with the Yimou team over the course of twenty-years.
But other key team members came from around the globe. “This was truly an international team from many countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong,” notes Xinming. “We had some of the world’s best artists and technicians, especially the special effects team from the UK, led by Joss Williams (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Pacific) and our art team, under Japanese production designer, Yohei Taneda (Kill Bill: Vol.1).”
Taneda would face a daunting task but was inspired to work with Yimou. “This was my first collaboration with Zhang Yimou,” says Taneda, who first met the director some nine years ago. “His films, imagery and artistry are truly unique. I feel very lucky to have finally had the opportunity to work with him, and especially the opportunity to contribute to a film like The Flowers of War.”
The production designer began his work by taking his own personal journey to Nanjing. “I had to see it for myself,” he explains. “I wanted to learn more about the city, its history and especially the place where the church in the film actually used to be at that time.” Taneda recreated the cathedral, the film’s main set piece, based on extant churches he found from the period in Beijing, Shanghai and Hokkaido, as well as a slew of vintage period photos Yimou presented him with.
“Churches in Asia are a different world,” notes the production designer. “I wanted to create the sense of mystery and the sense of space which is different from what you feel in Western churches. I worked out again and again the best church in my mind, integrating all the impressions and emotions evoked by the many different ones I had seen.”
Throughout, Taneda collaborated closely with Yimou, who was exhilarated to see the world of the film come to life so completely. “When we first arrived at the church location, there was nothing there except for a flat plot,” recalls the director. “But in the end it was exactly as I’d imagined it, the only difference being that it was even larger in order to facilitate interior shooting.”
Given the complex history between Japan and China, Taneda was committed to the utmost authenticity. “Although art is an imaginative representation rather than a reproduction of reality, this story overlaps with the real history and background of Nanjing,” he explains. “I am Japanese and so perhaps I felt more deeply about this.
It was complicated – the pain triggered my desire to create. While we were prepping, I was in Nanjing at the time of the anniversary of the massacre. A loud airraid alarm was sounded throughout the entire city; they do this every year on the memorial day of The Nanjing Massacre. It was then that I understood how the city today is still linked with its history.”
Under Taneda’s supervision, the sets for The Flowers of War were built over a 12-month period. “Everything was newly constructed,” notes Taneda. “But there were also numerous unexpected things. Rain, for example, caused delays as roads became small rivers. Fortunately, we were able to finish on time and on budget. It was an achievement made only through the joint efforts of the entire production team, the art team, the props team – everyone.”
When it came to the photography, Yimou reunited with Zhao Xiaoding, who has worked on six productions with Yimou over the past ten years. Xiaoding notes that Yimou’s trademark visual poetry is very much in evidence, even in the film’s intense battle sequences — which were made even more dynamic by Joss Williams’ renowned knack for original special effects.
As the shoot continued over a six-month period, the cast and crew were bolstered by always keeping in mind the people of Nanjing whom The Flowers of War is really about. “This story is one that means an awful lot and resonates a great deal in China, but I also hope our movie can help bring that story to the world at large,” says main actor Christian Bale.
Sums up producer Weiping: “It’s my hope that the film will resonate with audiences not only in China but in America and all over the world. I believe if a film tells a good story, it can move an audience and touch their hearts, wherever they are.”
Image Courtesy of http://www.theflowersofwarthemovie.com