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Toronto 2011: Christian Bale's China movie previewed for buyers

September 9, 2011 | 11:14 am


American films are doing gangbuster business in China this year, but no Chinese film has yet to land squarely with U.S. audiences in 2011. On Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, buyers got a 20-minute glimpse of a big-budget Chinese title that’s hoping to break through with American movie audiences this winter.

Starring Oscar-winner Christian Bale, the film -- previously known as “Heroes of Nanking” but now retitled “The Flowers of War” -- is directed by Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou, known for films such as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” and as the creative force behind the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The movie’s Chinese backers, including producer Zhang Weiping, who was on hand for the screening, are aiming for a mid-December release in China, with a near simultaneous rollout in the United States.

Set in 1937 as Japanese forces are taking over the then Chinese capital, Nanking, the film’s battle sequences unfold in a manner both grotesque and beautiful, like a live-action hand-colored postcard of war.

Bale plays John Haufman, a salty mortician who apparently has come to town to bury the priest of a cathedral in Nanking. The cathedral also has a school for girls, and with war waging all around and the priest dead, John dons the priests’ vestments and works out a temporary reprieve from the rampaging Japanese soldiers.

Things get complicated when a group of a dozen or so prostitutes from the city’s red-light district show up at the cathedral, demanding shelter. Bale is more than happy with the arrival of the beautiful, exotic women, who set up camp in the cellar of the church. But the chaste schoolgirls are discomfited by their arrival, and conflict bubbles up.

That’s not John’s biggest problem, though. Soon enough the Japanese are back with an invitation to a “ceremony” to mark the complete occupation of Nanking. The implication is that the occupiers want the schoolgirls to attend the event as sexual playthings for the soldiers.

But the prostitutes decide, in an act of selflessness that belies long-held stereotypes about those in their line of work, that they will take the place of the schoolgirls. John (perhaps using his mortician skills, but it’s not entirely clear) helps disguise them with plain outfits and prim hairdos.

John falls in love with one of the women, even as he sees her and her compatriots off to their apparent demise. Meanwhile, he manages to spirit the schoolgirls out of the city.

With a budget near to $100 million and Zhang’s knack for spectacle, the film’s visuals don’t disappoint -- the setting of a church under siege makes for some haunting imagery.

There even seem to be even some humorous moments in the script: At one point, a prostitute promises John: “If you can get us out of here, I’ll thank you in ways you can never imagine. We all will.” To which John replies: “Can I get an advance?”

American buyers will now have to weigh how U.S. audiences might receive the dual-language nature of the film (the 20-minute presentation seemed to split about 70% English, 30% Mandarin) and its somewhat earnest and sentimental feel. After the screening ended, there was applause, but it could hardly be described as sustained.


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-- Julie Makinen in Toronto   

Photo: Director Zhang Yimou, left, with Christian Bale on the set of their historic epic, now titled "The Flowers of War." Credit: YAO/New Pictures Film

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