'Flowers of War,' starring Christian Bale, premieres in Beijing
Director Zhang Yimou’s epic new film "The Flowers of War" doesn't open in the United States until Dec. 23, but the movie, starring Christian Bale and set amid the 1930s Japanese occupation of the Chinese city of Nanjing, premiered Sunday in the People’s Political Consultative Conference, an imposing government building in central Beijing.
After the screening came an hourlong event in which the film’s cast appeared onstage in costume and made short speeches celebrating the film’s achievements. The band of actors that played the Chinese soldiers held their prop rifles high in the air and shouted “Chinese soldiers!” eliciting a smattering of applause from the mostly native crowd.
Adapted from the novel “13 Flowers of Nanjing” by Geling Yan, "The Flowers of War" is both China’s official Academy Awards submission for the 2012 foreign language Oscar and the most expensive movie in Chinese history, with a production budget of $94 million. Bale stars as a brash American mortician named John Miller, who arrives in Nanjing to make a quick buck by burying a priest in the city’s cathedral. After being repeatedly exposed to the horrors of war, however, he dons the priest’s robes and assumes the mantle of protecting a group of schoolgirls and colorfully dressed courtesans from the atrocities of the occupation.
Chinese official history estimates that Japanese soldiers killed about 300,000 people in Nanjing during the occupation, many of them civilians and unarmed soldiers. Japanese estimates run lower, making the issue a perennial hurdle in Sino-Japanese relations. The film hews very closely to a portrayal of the events that is espoused by the Chinese state and supported in China’s history books and media.
In the film, Japanese soldiers are presented as one-dimensional savages -- “We’ve got virgins!” one gleefully shouts to his lieutenant after finding the schoolgirls hidden in the cathedral. For some context, director Jiang Wen’s 2003 film “Devils on the Doorstep,” which depicted occupying Japanese soldiers with some emotional depth, was banned in China after winning the Grand Prix at Cannes.
In the press conference after the screening, Bale said the movie should not be viewed as an anti-Japanese propaganda film. “I think that would be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “I don’t think they’re looking closely enough at the movie.”
Bale said that his desire to act in the film arose from a long-held respect for Zhang’s work. “I didn’t look at this as any sort of opportunity or pioneering effort,” he said. “I’m surprised when people say, ‘Oh, he’s the first person to have done this.’ It just seemed like a very natural thing to do.”
Bale denied having gained any special insight into China’s film industry outside of his relationship with Zhang. “I just know what it’s like working with Yimou. And with Yimou, I didn’t have any problems whatsoever,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Produced by Zhang Weiping, a longtime collaborator of director Zhang, "The Flowers of War" was funded in part by the state-owned Bank of China. The movie is being met with high expectations within the country, where Zhang -- who directed the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games -- has long been a household name. Bale’s concerned-looking visage stares out from advertisements on billboards and subway posters throughout Beijing.
China has the third-largest film industry in the world (after Hollywood and Bollywood) in both box-office revenue and the number of films produced per year. However, no Chinese filmmaker has ever won an Oscar. Zhang downplayed his awards ambitions at the press conference after the screening. “You can do all the hard work yourself, but in the end it really depends on the gods whether you win or not,” he said.
The film will open in China on Friday and is set to show in more than 8,000 theaters domestically, and Zhang said that the film’s success in the U.S. depends on “whether this story has the power to move people, and whether it’s capable of grabbing people’s interest.”
-- Jon Kaiman, reporting from Beijing