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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: China

'Flowers of War's' Zhang Yimou on China's future — and Tom Hanks

December 26, 2011 |  5:00 am

 

"The Flowers of War" director Zhang Yimou says China's rapidly growing film market will necessitate bringing more foreign films into the country and, he hopes, more actors from the United States. Could Tom Hanks be one of them?

In an interview on the set of "The Flowers of War" — which stars Christian Bale as a heroic figure during the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanjing — Zhang told The Times' David Pierson that China's film market will soon be the world's second-largest. Because Chinese filmmakers cannot meet the increasing demand, Zhang expects the country's quota system — which officially limits the number of foreign-made films to about 20 per year — to be softened.

"I think the quota will be relaxed and the number will be increased, definitely," Zhang said while on location in Lishui County, southeast of Nanjing, in June. "Because the audience and the number of cinemas are increasing, the market is increasing rapidly, so we need lots of good films. I personally believe that the Chinese cannot make that many good films within such a short period of time."

In addition, after his experience working with the Welsh-born Bale, Zhang hopes that more Western actors come to China. "Many of them are my idols," Zhang said. "I really like their work."

Apparently among them: Tom Hanks, to whom Zhang said he told the "Flowers of War" story. "But unfortunately his schedule didn’t fit," Zhang said.

For more of Zhang's interview about "The Flowers of War" — which opened Dec. 23 and is China's entry in the foreign-language Oscar race — read the transcript below. Or watch the video above, with Zhang speaking in Mandarin (and with English interpretation provided by Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau).

Are you optimistic that one day Chinese films will rival Hollywood films on the international market?

Truthfully, I think that day is still very far off. We often hear that the Chinese market will quickly approach the size of the U.S. market and become the second-largest market. It is concluded from calculating the number of new screens and cinemas per year. But it will still take a long time for a Chinese film to create international influence.

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Christian Bale, low-profile, until he's not. Just ask Zhang Yimou.

December 24, 2011 |  5:00 am

"The Flowers of War" star Christian Bale caused a significant media kerfuffle with the Chinese government this month when he attempted to visit a Chinese human rights activist.  The Foreign Ministry scolded him and said he should be "embarrassed," but so far director Zhang Yimou has been mum on the incident.

Zhang had nothing but praise for the Welsh-born actor during an interview this summer on the set of "Flowers," which stars Bale as an unlikely American hero during the 1937 Japanese raid of Nanjing, China.

"He has left a great impression on our team, such that we cannot stop praising him," Zhang told The Times' David Pierson in June while on location in Lishui County, southeast of Nanjing. "There are many things we Chinese need to learn from him: He is professional, down to earth, and he keeps a low profile." 

Zhang, the filmmaker behind Chinese classics such as "Hero" and "Raise the Red Lantern" and mastermind of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, said that Bale also showed a great love for children while at work. "He loves children, and there are many children here on the set," Zhang said. "He simply couldn't act with children when they were crying."

You can read about it all in the transcript below. Or watch the video above, with Zhang speaking in Mandarin (and with English interpretation provided by Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau).

The film, China's submission for the foreign-language Oscar this year, opened Dec. 23.

Did you set out in the beginning to make a movie that would be an international hit? Is your decision to work with Christian Bale sort of indicative of that?

In fact, every story has its own structure, and it's not in anyone's hands to enlarge or reduce it. The original story and the adapted screenplay have a kind of international structure, which is why we thought of inviting a very good actor [from American films] to make the production of the film more on an international standard.

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'Flowers of War's' Zhang Yimou: Censorship limits Chinese films

December 23, 2011 | 10:35 pm

 

When director Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War" opened in Beijing earlier this month, star Christian Bale had to answer questions about whether the movie set amid the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanjing is an anti-Japanese propaganda film -- an assertion he firmly rebutted. But perhaps a bigger question surrounding the movie, or any mainland Chinese production for that matter, is how much of an influence  government censorship has in its making.  

During a June interview on set, Zhang told the Los Angeles Times' David Pierson that while he expected total artistic freedom during the making of the movie, he also felt Chinese censorship limits filmmakers' options.

"In China there is a censorship system; directors don’t have 100% space of freedom," Zhang said while on location in Lishui County, southeast of Nanjing. "In fact, it’s more often the case that many stories cannot be made into film. I wish there would be more space given to artists with the development of the Chinese market. I wish there would be many good stories available for film directors."

Adapted from the novel "13 Flowers of Nanjing" by Geling Yan, "The Flowers of War" features Bale playing an American mortician who arrives in Nanjing to make a quick buck. But after seeing the horrors of war, he dons priest’s robes to try to protect schoolgirls and courtesans. The film, China's submission for the foreign-language Oscar this year, opens Dec. 23.

For more about the topic of Chinese censorship from Zhang, the director of films such as "Hero" and "Raise the Red Lantern" and the 2008 Olympic Games' opening ceremony, read the transcript below. Or watch the video above, with Zhang speaking in Mandarin (and with English interpretation provided by Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau).

Chinese films have struggled a lot in the international market, and the U.S. market specifically. What do you think is holding back Chinese films today? Is it scriptwriting, piracy or even censorship?

It is a complicated problem. There isn't a very good prescription for it right now. I personally believe the most important thing is there are not many good films. By definition, good films mean good stories that people all over the world can understand and be touched by. These kinds of powerful films are very few. Often there are films that are very regionalized or simplified that people don't understand or aren't moved by.

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Is Christian Bale's 'Flowers of War' playing its cards wrong?

December 22, 2011 |  7:30 am

Christian Bale in "The Flowers of War"

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.

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Photo: "The Flowers of War." Credit: Wrekin Hill


'Flowers of War,' starring Christian Bale, premieres in Beijing

December 12, 2011 |  2:54 pm

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.”

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-- Jon Kaiman, reporting from Beijing


Christian Bale's 'Flowers of War' to open in U.S.

November 7, 2011 |  6:36 pm

Flowers
"The Flowers of War" will be coming to U.S. theaters soon — although how many theaters remains an open question.

Producers on the Christian Bale China war epic announced Monday that they have made a deal with a Los Angeles-based company called Wrekin Hill Entertainment to release the film in North America. The movie will get a limited release in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco in December and then a wider release in early 2012, the producers said.

The deal could mean that "Flowers" won't get the big push that a larger studio acquisition might have entailed. Instead, the movie, shown to many North American buyers only last month, will be turned around quickly by Wrekin Hill and given an Oscar-qualifying run before the end of the year. The number of theaters it will play both in the limited run and the 2012 release have not been determined, a spokeswoman said.

Wrekin Hill is run by the former principals of Newmarket Films, which was behind the release of hits such as "Memento" and "The Passion of the Christ" in the early 2000s. It has concentrated in its new incarnation on niche releases such as Peter Weir's "The Way Back" and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Hesher."

The movie will not be released day-and-date with China, where the film will open wide Dec. 16.

Directed by Zhang Yimou ("Heroes"), the multilingual "Flowers" stars Bale as a mortician posing as a priest during the rape of Nanking; when the war begins to intensify, he risks his own life to save young female students and courtesans. With an estimated budget of $100 million, "Flowers" is the most expensive movie in China's history and an evident point of pride for the country, which is looking to up its stock in Hollywood.

The Wrekin Hill deal came about in part, said one person with knowledge of the plans who asked anonymity because of the sensitive nature of negotiations, because producers were keen on an awards push this year, and most distributors already had their slates locked for 2011.

"Flowers" is the official China submission in the foreign-language category. The film need not open in the United States to be eligible for that category, but the qualifying run means that principals will be eligible in all categories — including, of course, best actor. The war epic, financially backed by producer Zhang Weiping, has hired veteran Oscar consultant Cynthia Swartz to help with the campaign.

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Photo: Chrisian Bale in "The Flowers of War." Credit: Wrekin Hill Entertainment.


Will Oscars go for Christian Bale's China epic? [Trailer]

October 20, 2011 |  9:49 pm

Christian Bale in 'The Flowers of War'The trailer for Christian Bale's so-called China movie shows some scenes of noisy war, a quiet moment of dramatic beauty and then some noisier scenes of war. You can even say it shows the flowers of war, which is fitting, as it's the trailer for "The Flowers of War," Zhang Yimou's approximately $100-million Chinese period epic. Based on the book "The 13 Women of Nanjing" by writer Yan Geling, the movie tells of an American priest who saves prostitutes and students during the Rape of Nanking; it's also China's official foreign-language Oscar submission.

It's hard to divine a movie from three minutes, of course, but what we see here is mostly an alternately stoic and histrionic Bale protecting his charges from some very expensive-looking war effects. No distributor yet, and no release date. So we won't get a chance to make larger decisions anytime soon. (You can click here for our assessment of footage shown at this year's Toronto Film Festival.) Will the academy go for it? It has the war setting, a perennial Oscar favorite, and, well, hopefully more than that.


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Photo: Christian Bale, left,  plays an American priest named John in "The Flowers of War." Credit: New Pictures Film


'Red Dawn' remake to come out next year from FilmDistrict

September 26, 2011 | 12:28 pm

Photo: A scene from the original "Red Dawn" in 1984. Credit: MGM / United Artists.

This post has been corrected. Please see note at the bottom for details.

A remake of the invasion movie "Red Dawn" — with its villains now digitally modified from Chinese to North Korean — will finally hit American shores next year.

The new version of the Reagan-era classic will be released in the U.S. by independent studio FilmDistrict, according to people familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss it publicly. FilmDistrict is finalizing a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that produced the movie in 2009.

In the original "Red Dawn," a group of teenagers in a Colorado town battle invading Soviet forces; in the remake, the invaders were changed to Chinese. But that decision turned the film into a hot potato.

After MGM emerged from bankruptcy in late 2009 and decided it wouldn’t release the movie, no other studio wanted to touch “Red Dawn” for fear of offending the government of China, a hugely important market in the increasingly global film business.

As a result, the movie’s producers last winter used digital technology and creative editing to change most of the invaders to North Koreans. (Staunchly communist North Korea is economically isolated and not a market for any American products.) Still, it took most of the year to find a distributor willing to take the movie on.

FilmDistrict Chief Executive Peter Schlessel declined to discuss “Red Dawn.” Given that final details are still being worked out, however, it likely won’t hit theaters until 2012.

The new “Red Dawn” cost about $60 million to produce. It stars Chris Hemsworth, who played the title character in “Thor,” and was directed by Dan Bradley, second unit director on the last two “Bourne” movies and the upcoming “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

FilmDistrict, which is backed by finance and production company GK Films, launched in April with the horror hit “Insidious." Its most recent release is the Ryan Gosling L.A. noir film, “Drive.”

[For the Record, Sept. 28, 2:15 p.m.: An early version of this post incorrectly said the teenagers in the original film who battled invading Soviet forces lived in Washington. ]

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Photo: A scene from the original "Red Dawn" in 1984. Credit: MGM / United Artists.


Reel China: Christian Bale's 'Flowers' picked as Oscar submission

September 23, 2011 |  2:59 pm

Lost Flowers

Christian Bale won the supporting actor Oscar earlier this year for “The Fighter.” If China has its way in next year’s Academy Awards, Bale could be represented in the foreign-language race.

China’s Film Bureau said Friday that “The Flowers of War,” an ambitious war story that is set and was filmed in China, will be the country’s official entry for the foreign-language trophy. Although large parts of the film are in English, the production, directed by Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero”), is principally in Mandarin. Bale plays John Haufman, an American caught in Japan’s invasion of China in 1937.  In a Nanking cathedral, Haufman fights to protect a collection of young girls from the Imperial Army.

The American release plans for “The Flowers of War” have not been finalized. Bale is currently working on the Batman sequel “The Dark Knight Rises.”

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Photo: Christian Bale in "The Flowers of War." Credit: New Pictures Film


Legendary East's first film project: scaling China's 'Great Wall'

August 23, 2011 |  5:53 pm

Zwick
Legendary Pictures is kicking off its new China venture with a movie about the country's best-known structure. The newly formed Legendary East announced Tuesday that its first production will be "The Great Wall," which will tell "why this magnificent structure came to be," according to the company.

"Last Samurai" and "Love and Other Drugs" writer-director Edward Zwick is penning the screenplay with his longtime collaborator Marshall Herskovitz. It's based on a story by Max Brooks, writer of the upcoming thriller "World War Z," and Thomas Tull, Legendary Pictures' chairman.

Legendary East aims to produce English-language movies in China based on local culture that are intended to be released around the world. Because it works with a local distributor, Huayi Brothers, its films are not subject to the communist country's restrictions on how many foreign movies can be imported each year.

"The Great Wall" will be directed by Zwick, but does not yet have a release date.

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Photo: Marshall Herskovitz, left, and Edward Zwick at an AFI event in June. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI


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