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At once lyrical and visceral, The Flowers of War enters the apocalyptic world of Nanjing in 1937 only to find a vibrant human story about the invisible people of the city and a series of unexpected relationships that lead to a resonant act of sacrifice.
It begins when the danger in the streets of Nanjing throws together a group of opposites –a flock of shell-shocked school children, a dozen seductive courtesans, and a renegade American (Academy Award winner Christian Bale) posing as a priest to save his own skin, or so he thinks – all seeking safety behind a walled cathedral.
Trapped by marauding soldiers, over the next few days the prejudices and divides between them will fall away as they unite around a last-ditch plan to protect the children from impending catastrophe.
Playing Christian Bale’s seductive foil as the courtesan Yu Mo is newcomer Ni Ni, a student who was cast after an extensive search by the filmmakers. “The crew first came to my school,” explains Ni Ni, who was asked to pack her bags to audition in person for Zhang Yimou in Shanghai, which soon led to her finding unexpected passion with John Miller as Yu Mo.
“I was already familiar with Zhang Yimou’s movies, like House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower . . . and then I got to meet him,” recalls the actress. “We just talked, maybe for about an hour, about my family, my studies and what I was like as a person – he was incredibly kind to me. The big surprise, of course, was to find out I would play in this movie opposite Christian Bale. I was completely stunned by the opportunity because I had never dreamed of becoming an actress.”
Most of the courtesans and school children seen in the film were cast in the same way, with director Zhang Yimou going out in search for the raw naturalism of non-actors. “We wanted to bring a sense of reality and discovery to audiences,” explains Weiping, who helped to conduct the extensive casting sessions in China.
Once cast, the actresses playing the courtesans prepared diligently for their roles, studying calligraphy, painting and music, as well as learning to walk in their slinky, body-hugging cheongsam dresses.
With the younger schoolgirls, Bale at first worried about the impact of the film’s most intense scenes on them. “The trickiest thing for me was watching all those poor girls bawling their eyes out the first few days,” says Bale of scenes where the children are relentlessly chased by soldiers. “It would almost make me cry.
I’m looking at them – these are 12, 13-year-old kids – and I’m thinking, this is going to be tough. But when Xinyi [newcomer Zhang Xinyi who plays the lead schoolgirl, Shu] looked at me winking and laughing after one scene, I saw that she was able to switch it off. That was a great relief for me and I was also in awe, because I can’t even do that. In the end, these kids always had me on the run because they were the better actors.”
“Christian was especially great with the kids,” says Yimou, who not only took great care to ensure his young performers would have a positive experience on set, but also elicited some of the film’s strongest performances from them. “He was moved by their performances, which in turn heightened his own.”
Yimou notes that he especially enjoys working with children, citing an organic vitality that he finds translate beautifully to the screen. “What I find is that they’re always sincere and honest in every aspect,” he observes. “When you tell them how they’re supposed to act, they always show you real emotions. This was precious for me in this film.”
The rest of the supporting cast for the film would come from both Japan and across China, including Tong Dawei, regarded as one of the leading young actors in China, as the self-sacrificing military hero Major Li, and the popular television presenter and talk-show host, Cao Kefan, as Mr. Meng, a civilian attempting to save the life of his daughter.
From Japan, Yimou recruited the talents of Atsuro Watabe as the commander of the Japanese forces in Nanking, Colonel Hasegawa, and Shigeo Kobayashi (Todai) as Lt. Kato, his ruthless sidekick. Working with such a wide-ranging cast brought some changes to Yimou’s approach, although the director himself downplays the differences.
“It wasn’t exactly the same as other productions,” says Yimou. “I called the shots in English when I was shooting and this was new for me. Though I don’t really speak English, I had some experience in this kind of international collaboration in the Olympics. I found that even though different nationalities may have different habits and work styles, our common understanding of this film and the desire to tell a compelling story is what held us together as a team.”
Image Courtesy of http://www.theflowersofwarthemovie.com