Cannes 2011: Christian Bale's China movie aims to catch America's eye
The international film business can bridge a lot of cultural divides But can it knock down one of the great walls of cinema culture -- the one that stands between China and the U.S.?
China allows in precious few American movies every year, despite halting efforts to change that, and almost no Chinese blockbusters succeed in North America. But the people behind the Chinese epic "The Heroes of Nanking" hope their movie can help create a new pipeline.
The period drama, which tells of an American priest who puts his life on the line during the Nanking Massacre to shelter more than a dozen prostitutes and students, has roots in Chinese history and cinema. And it's based on a popular Chinese novel. But it also stars a Hollywood leading man, Christian Bale, as the priest and is directed by Zhang Yimou, the award-winning filmmaker who came to mainstream prominence in the U.S. when he staged the pyrotechnics of the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and has directed numerous films including "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."
On Saturday afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers gathered at the city's Majestic Hotel to tout the project, at a reception thrown by the newly hired U.S.-based sales agent, who has come on to help the film find distributors around the world. (The company's producer, New Pictures, is also currently seeking U.S. distribution.)
Zhang Weiping, who produced as well as financed the film, said that there was a social component to his piece of entertainment. "Chinese people love Hollywood movies, but in the West there are a lot of misconceptions about China," Weiping told 24 Frames, speaking through a fellow producer, Chaoying Deng, who was translating. "We want this movie to give Americans and Europeans a perspective on China and Chinese cinema. We want to communicate with every race and people."
Weiping said he wasn't worried about the historical nuances being lost on a non-Asian audience. "It's a story about heroism, and everybody can relate to that," he said.
Bale has wrapped his scenes in the movie, which has a shooting schedule of Hollywood proportions -- it began in December and finishes in mid-June. Nearly an entire period city was re-created in a neighborhood of Beijing; filmmakers are relying on physical locations over CGI to enhance the film's authenticity.
While the U.S. has a long love affair with martial-arts films, historical and other forms of Chinese dramas have mainly been confined to a niche audience, along the lines of Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" back in 2007. But filmmakers hope "Nanking" ushers in a new period. "It speaks a universal language, and that makes us hopeful," Weiping said.
--Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France
Photo: A still from "The Heroes of Nanking." Credit: FilmNation