Is Christian Bale's 'Flowers of War' playing its cards wrong?
If you're going to release the most expensive movie in your country's history, you might want to consider a different path than the one taken by Chinese filmmakers for "The Flowers of War," the nation’s 2011 foreign-language Oscar submission.
The Zhang Yimou epic, which stars Christian Bale as an American carpetbagger dragged into heroism during the rape of Nanjing, has a big budget and bigger ambitions. At a cost of $94 million and an A-list Hollywood star, it's designed to hit on both sides of the Pacific — and in fact needs to if it's to turn a profit.
But the war picture has encountered nothing but speed bumps in recent months. The latest obstacle is an unusual rebuke of its star by a high-profile government spokesman.
Visiting China for the premiere of "Flowers," Bale last weekend chose to drive eight hours to visit a dissident, a blind lawyer named Chen Guangcheng. Chen has been imprisoned in his eastern-province home because of what activists say was his zeal in documenting aggressive sterility efforts by regional authorities. Though technically a free man, Chen's supporters say he has been beaten and harassed by the government or its proxies, preventing him from leaving his home.
With the goal of telling Chen "what an inspiration he is," Bale set out to visit the lawyer, news cameras in tow. But the actor was forcibly stopped at the edge of Chen's town by military officials, an event captured on camera and quickly zoomed around the world.
In a statement on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin made the government's feelings on the incident known. “He was not invited to create a story or shoot film in a certain village,” Liu said of Bale's visit to Chen. “I think if you want to make up news in China, you will not be welcome here.”
Even before any of this, Bale had made a point of telling The Times it was the Zhang collaboration, not specifically the idea of working in China, that spurred him to make the film. After this smackdown, there's clearly no love lost between actor and nation. It's safe to assume he won’t make Oscar campaigning on behalf of the Chinese government — for a film that is also, it should be said, fiercely pro-Chinese —a priority.
Chen-gate isn't the first hurdle "Flowers" has faced. Despite being produced with great fanfare over a period of six months in Beijing, producers raised eyebrows in Hollywood last month when they announced they’d sold U.S. rights to Wrekin Hill, a relatively minor distribution player. Those eyebrows went up further when Wrekin Hill said it was accelerating a release in the coming few weeks, pushing the movie into a crowded December schedule when any film, let alone a war epic told partly in Mandarin, would have a rough time. (The movie opens stateside this weekend in limited release.)
Meanwhile, "Flowers" hasn't exactly set the Chinese box office on fire. Despite a big push by the government to get the movie into a large number of theaters, the film garnered only a decent $23.9 million last week in its opening weekend. Pundits say this puts it well behind the pace it needs to be on if it has any hope of breaking even domestically.
When "Flowers" was first announced, it was hailed as an example of a promising 21st century collaboration. Bale got to flex a different set of muscles than he would in a Hollywood movie, and China got the imprimatur of a major Western star.
But flexing those muscles, Bale is finding out, can come with people and policies you don't like. As for China, the country is fast learning that when you sign up to work with a free-thinking Hollywood star, you get the thoughts, and actions, that come with it.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "The Flowers of War." Credit: Wrekin Hill