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Celebrated Chinese director and multiple Oscar nominee Zhang Yimou is known around the world for his visually breathtaking films that range from historical epics to kung-fu action to dramatic fables but share in common a theme of grit in the face of adversity. With The Flowers of War, he takes on his most ambitious, and most universally accessible, motion picture to date.
Set in a city under fire, the film views wartime from a tapestry of perspectives rarely seen: those of the women, children and outsiders trapped by war’s chaos, who are vulnerable, yet also often resilient. Christian Bale joins a predominantly Chinese and Japanese cast to play John Miller, a wisecracking American drifter who enters Nanjing in search of opportunity just as invading soldiers turn the city to rubble. When he arrives at a Western-run cathedral to bury the priest in charge, he instead finds children desperate for help.
In a night of drunken revelry, he tries on the deceased priest’s frock, only to discover it carries a power he did not expect. Suddenly, Miller finds himself not just pretending to be a father figure, but truly becoming one, as the church provides tenuous shelter both to children and prostitutes, including the alluring head courtesan Yu Mo (Ni Ni), who ultimately makes a heartbreaking decision.
Like most Chinese, Yimou had long been very familiar with the basic history of the 1937 massacre in Nanjing. He knew that when Japanese troops overtook the city, setting off a battle with Chinese soldiers and resistors, the ensuing melee turned suddenly into a harrowing annihilation that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as the rapes of tens of thousands of women, men and children.
But when he read Yan Geling’s novel ‘Thirteen Flowers of War,’ he found himself moved by something different – by a story of people usually unseen to history discovering a courage they did not realize they had.
“The Nanjing massacre event is well known by the Chinese people,” explains Yimou (interviewed for the production notes through an interpreter). “Almost every year we see films or television plays about it. But I liked this novel best because it was a story of humanity, a story with a woman’s point of view. That’s what makes it unique. I was determined to make a film out of it.”
Novelist Yan Geling — who was born in Shanghai and later studied writing in America — based her novel on true stories both of Americans in Nanjing who were invaluable in helping Chinese civilians to survive during and after the massacre; and true stories of sex workers in Nanjing who stepped in to replace university students when they were in danger of becoming forced “escorts” for Japanese soldiers.
Yimou and screenwriter Liu Heng saw in Geling’s story far more than a period epic. For them, it was a chance to explore cinematically the most basic human responses – comically flawed, desirous and heroic– to life in wartime. They wanted to examine not the causes or events of the war itself but a universal theme at the story’s core: how people under threat in any nation, in any time period, find that helping others becomes something bigger than their own survival.
“No matter what wars or disasters happen in history, what surrounds these times is life, love, salvation and humanity,” says Yimou. “I hope those things are felt in this story.
The human side of the story was more important to me than the background of the Nanjing massacre. Human nature, love and sacrifice — these are the things that are truly eternal. For me, the event is the historical background of the film. But the enduring question of the story is how the human spirit is expressed in wartime.”
While the heart of the film lies in the personal changes within the characters, the visual scope is vast. Yimou began envisioning the project while he was creating the critically acclaimed opening ceremonies to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Several years later, after an intensive development and design process, shooting began on what would become the largest domestic production ever mounted in China, equivalent to a $100 million production in the U.S.
To oversee this massive undertaking, Yimou brought in his long-time trusted production partner, friend and producer, Zhang Weiping. “I have been working with Zhang Yimou for many years and we were good friends even before I first began to invest in his films in 1995,” explains Weiping of their relationship. “The thing that has always impressed me about Yimou is his sincerity. Then and now. And there has always been a mutual trust between us.”
Nevertheless, The Flowers of War represented a departure for both men. “There are common elements amongst all the films that Zhang Yimou directs,” observes the producer, “but I think this film is the most internationally accessible in its themes and story. Even if you’re not familiar with Chinese history or the events of Nanjing, you connect with this film on a pure emotional level. That’s what initially attracted me to the project — the potential of its broad appeal.”
The project would also truly be multi-national in nature, with actors from the U.S., China and Japan joining in with an equally global crew. “A multi-national team formed naturally for this film,” explains Yimou. “The cast and crew united around their feeling for the story. Even with all the different languages and personalities, there was great cooperation.”
Image Courtesy of http://www.theflowersofwarthemovie.com