From the beginning, The Flowers of War director Zhang Yimou knew he wanted Christian Bale for the pivotal role of John Miller, an American mortician who takes on the guise of a priest during a life-changing few days while trapped in ’30s war-torn Nanjing. It was a dream for Yimou, but making it happen was a major coup for a Chinese film production. ‘This is the first real collaboration with a major Hollywood star in more than 100 years of Chinese film history,’ notes producer Zhang Weiping. But Yimou didn’t need to worry; Bale couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with what he calls ‘a master director’ on this new film.
‘I certainly thought I wasn’t going to get another chance to do something like this again,’ says the 38-year-old actor. ‘I also really didn’t know what to expect – which made me want to do it even more. Yimou makes staggeringly beautiful movies with real substance, and brilliant characters. He 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 the movie 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, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s classic tale of a coming-of-age expat in ’40s Shanghai. Since then, Bale has gone on to a wide range of often unnerving performances in such films as American Psycho, The Machinist, Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Bale’s most popular commercial success came as the iconic superhero Batman in the blockbusters Batman Begins and sequel The Dark Knight. Last year he picked up his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as the troubled boxing legend Dicky Eklund in David O Russell’s The Fighter.
In The Flowers of War, Bale is thrust into the chaotic milieu of the Nanjing massacre of 1937, where an estimated 250,000 Chinese were killed in a tragic six-week period. In what is described by the studio as an ‘epic tale of love and war’, Bale plays American priest Miller, one of a number of outcasts who emerge against the Japanese occupation.
‘I’d heard about the Nanjing massacre, but I didn’t really know much about it before this movie,’ admits 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.
‘The character of John Miller is based on a few different real Americans in Nanjing in 1937, but he’s also a fictional creation. He’s a bit of a drifter, an opportunist and a guy who likes a good time. 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, [but] he gets swept up in the events. 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.’
Used to playing larger-than-life Hollywood roles, Bale was surprised by how much Yimou worked to make his characters seem ordinary, and even ugly. ‘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.’
Playing Bale’s romantic foil is Chinese newcomer Ni Ni, a 23-year-old student who was cast after an extensive search by the filmmakers. ‘The crew first came to my school,’ explains Ni, who was asked to audition for Yimou in Shanghai. ‘I was already familiar with Zhang Yimou’s movies, such as House of Flying Daggers and Hero… and then I got to meet him,’ recalls the actress. ‘We just talked about my family, my studies and what I was like as a person – he was incredibly kind. The big surprise, of course, was to find out I’d be playing opposite Christian Bale. I was completely stunned – I’d never dreamed of becoming an actress.’
Most of the courtesans and school children seen in the film were cast in the same way, with Yimou going out in search of the raw naturalism of non-actors. The rest of the supporting cast are from both Japan and across China. Tong Dawei, regarded as one of the leading young actors in China, plays the self-sacrificing military hero Major Li, while popular TV presenter and talk-show host Cao Kefan is Mr Meng, a civilian attempting to save the life of his daughter. From Japan, Yimou recruited the talents of Atsuro Watabe (A Quiet Life) as Colonel Hasegawa, the commander of the Japanese forces in Nanjing, and Shigeo Kobayashi (Todai) as Lieutenant Kato, his ruthless sidekick.
‘It wasn’t exactly the same as other productions,’ admits Yimou, reflecting on the multinational cast. ‘I called the shots in English when I was shooting and this was new for me – I don’t really speak English.
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.’
Flowers of War is in UAE cinemas from Thursday April 26.
Read Time Out's review of The Flowers of War here.