Flicks and Bits (February 21st, 2012)


Directed by internationally acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou ( Not One Less, Hero, House of the Flying Daggers), and inspired by true life events, ’The Flowers of War’ tells a genuine story of hope and sacrifice. Set in 1937, Nanking stands at the forefront of a war between China and Japan. As the invading Japanese Imperial Army overruns China’s capital city, desperate civilians seek refuge behind the nominally protective walls of a western cathedral. Here, John Haufman (Christian Bale), an American trapped amidst the chaos of battle and the ensuing occupation takes shelter, joined by a group of innocent schoolgirls and thirteen courtesans, equally determined to escape the horrors taking place outside the church walls. Struggling to survive the violence and persecution wrought by the Japanese army, it is an act of heroism which eventually leads the seemingly disparate group to fight back, risking their lives for the sake of everyone. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, fate always has a way of bringing the most unlikely heroes together.

What did you know about this horrendous massacre before you went into ‘The Flowers of War’?

Christian Bale: I didn’t know about it extensively, but I actually had the book, ‘The Rape of Nanking,’ on my bookshelf for many years. I had kind of picked it up a few times, but had not actually gotten around to reading it. But I was familiar with it, and I educated myself about it before hand. I must admit, primarily just through my own personal interest, because obviously the character would not have known, it’s only in hindsight we know all of this, but he’s a character who just came through circumstance to be there….depending on how you look at it; at the wrong time and at the wrong place, or maybe at the right time and the right place. It’s certainly a tragic moment in history, human history. And it is something that not many people know about, and that’s astounding. You kind of get these blinkers on once you do know about something, you feel like everybody knows about it, you make that assumption. Every time I would mention to it to somebody in the US, when I was preparing to work with Yimou, and Yimou sent me a wealth of information and research about it, it always stung me how little anybody knew about it.

I think, most importantly, there’s obviously the history of it, but more important is the personal level. That is something which nobody can help but to feel for and connect with, because it’s just human nature….you may just the hear numbers of 300,000, or 250,000, the discrepancies, any credible discrepancies that I hear about of the rape of Nanking, they’re nothing to do with the actual event itself, or whether it happened, it’s always about the numbers, and even the lowest account of numbers are absolutely atrocious and hideous. I was fascinated by it, and what better person to tell it but Yimou.

How was it for you working on this production in China and with Zhang Yimou?

Christian Bale: It was absolutely wonderful. I was interested in the movie initially because of Zhang Yimou, with his incredible track record of movies, being one of the most interesting directors around, admiring his work. I was very flattered that he came to me, that he was interested in working with me. I found it to be a very unusual experience, but one that I found very gratifying. It was great to find a lingua franca between the two of us. It was wonderful to discover, with such a great story teller, how you can understand so much through a communication other than direct language. Yimou was somebody I always wanted to work with. It was like a new adventure, and I like to try new things. Then also just coming to realise the poignancy that this event means to so many people. And being interested in this fictional world within this very factual tragedy that was happening outside.

You mentioned the communication aspect of working on a Chinese film, what was it like from an acting stand point? In that acting is approached slightly different in China – as it is in many countries.

Christian Bale: In my initial conversations with Yimou, he said to me, “Hey, I’m not sure if you’re accustomed to not sticking to the script, we don’t like to stick to script, we improvise an awful lot, we change things every day,” but I enjoyed that kind of filmmaking greatly. The wonderful thing with this, with being an actor, is that you get to work with so many different directors, and each of them have very different styles. So Yimou, he’s just another director, an extraordinary one, but another director with another style. I’ve always come to find, even with English speaking directors, that it has to go beyond the language. An awful lot of people will talk, but when you come to doing it, it’s very different to what you expect. There’s no better way of learning how to work with somebody than actually doing, so there wasn’t much difference here.

What I enjoyed about it was that with Yimou, I wanted to show him different examples with each take, I understood that there was a different cultural expectation, possibly, in terms of drama – and I find that a fascinating thing. We’re all human, but there’s different expectations with what acting is meant to be all over. You go back 20, 30 years and acting was very different to it is now, I find that just bizarre beyond belief. But there is that, so I would say to Yimou, “What are you expecting?” I was very happy to give him that. Then also just getting to play around with it as well. Yimou was always very open to that, I was very grateful to him for that. And that’s what I believe in, I believe that if you have trouble with giving a director very different versions of each take, of each scene, then go be a director. But I’m an actor, so I want to, if I trust a director, if I admire their work, then I’m gonna be very happy to be able to give them variance. So in the editing room they can choose what they want to do, I find all that very enjoyable. Filming on ‘The Flowers of War,’ we had some very funny moments, some moments of misunderstanding, but those are always good moments, ultimately.

I can imagine that helping you get through such emotional source material, a bit of humour on set?

Christian Bale: Oh yeah. Yimou’s daughter gave wonderful translation to me, but then there were moments….maybe she went for a cup of tea or something, and Yimou needed to talk to me, then we found we could get some kind of communication across, enough that was necessary (laughs). That’s always good, because for me there’s always a danger of finding too much before you actually shoot the scene. The definition of a scene should come through actually doing it. I found it all really enjoyable. With someone like Yimou, who’s so good humoured – and you need that when you’re making a move that has such tragic moments as this, that is so poignant, you need that in order to retain that humanity. Much in the same way that the characters need that as well. Nobody can endure that amount of drama and emotion in their life 24/7, you have to have a break from it, no matter how serious the circumstances are.

Working on a variety of projects, and many different directors, is that something you set out for?

Christian Bale: Yeah. I think everybody needs to create different rhythms in their lives, to not be predictable to yourself. As an actor there are times when there are no choices whatsoever (laughs), then now, just recently, I found myself fortunate enough to be able to make many different types of choices. I’ve been involved with a franchise movie for sometime, which I greatly enjoyed, which had great success, with Christopher Nolan, with the Batman moves. But yes, I very much want to try something different. Also, the great thing is that every director is so different to each to other. With ‘The Flowers of War,’ it was also the cultural difference, which was something I was very pleased to be able to explore, and I had a truly wonderful time doing so. I had a fantastic time in China with my fellow filmmakers, there was an extraordinarily level of commitment and talent to it, it was something I would have been very envious of if someone had taken that role (laughs).