National Public Radio (January 21st, 2012)

CHRISTIAN BALE: AN AMERICAN IN CHINA

Christian Bale plays a drifter in his new film. John Miller is no Batman. He’s an Oklahoma mortician by trade and a soldier of fortune in temperament who comes to do a bit of business in Nanjing formerly known as Nanking, China in 1937, just as the Japanese army invades and brutalizes the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, “THE FLOWERS OF WAR”)

CHRISTIAN BALE: (as John Miller) American from the refuge.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BALE: (as John Miller) American.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BALE: (as John Miller) Not soldier.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

SIMON: The Nanjing Massacre is one of the defining historical events of modern China. Women were particular victims of war crimes there. And in Christian Bale’s new film, “The Flowers of War,” an unlikely group of women are also heroes. And his character discovers a sense of purpose. The film is China’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film. It was made for a reported $100 million by the director Zhang Yimou.

Christian Bale, who is perhaps best-known for playing Batman and, of course, won an Academy Award last year for “The Fighter,” joins us from Beverly Hills, California.

Thanks so much for being with us.

BALE: Thank you.

SIMON: In a sense, is this role a return to China for you?

BALE: I didn’t feel like that. You know, I mean, you’re talking about when I was 13 I made “Empire of the Sun” in Shanghai.

SIMON: Right. With Steven Spielberg.

BALE: Back in 1987, but that feels like such another lifetime to me. And I was very interested to work with Zhang Yimou, who’s a phenomenally accomplished director. And it’s not very often that you get an opportunity to work on a movie that’s, you know, 60 percent in Mandarin, made within China, and get to experience that entirely different culture of filmmaking.

SIMON: I have to ask, Mr. Bale, how do you react to the charge some reviewers and people in the film industry have made that this whole huge expensive film was kind of a part of a Chinese government effort to soften its image?

BALE: I think that, for me, I mean, obviously, I had no interest in making a movie with that in mind whatsoever. You know, I always do say that, you know, once you’re within a movie it’s a little hard. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees, but I really assessed this one, and I can’t bring myself to come to agree with it in any way whatsoever. And knowing Yimou, I do not think that he would ever have any interest in entertaining that at all.

SIMON: What was it like to work on such a huge set with so many people who were probably making their first film?

BALE: I liked that. I always like working with people making their first film. You know, there’s that enthusiasm, there’s that naivete about it. Yeah, you know that nobody’s got a bag of tricks that they’re falling back on. And I found that with Yimou, he never told anybody what we were going to be shooting until very late the night before. And it just keeps that extra spontaneity, and I like that kind of filmmaking. It’s far more human.

SIMON: How does your character, John Miller, this Dust Bowl drifter, wind up at the center of this story?

BALE: I kind of viewed him as an escapee from the Dust Bowl, as kind of a jack of all trades, you know, was mechanically inclined as well. And he does have a past history, which we come to learn about later in the movie. He finds himself, you know, kind of exhausting all possibilities within America and then ends up working on cargo ships. And he’s kind of a character who is accustomed to raucous and chaotic people around him. That’s what he likes. That’s where he finds his comfort. He’s definitely pursuing excess with a vengeance as a means, we find out later, to deal with pain. And then finds himself stuck within the confines of a Catholic church with some other unlikely guests in the midst of the massacre in Nanjing.

SIMON: Yeah. We’ll explain: half the people, aside from John Miller, half the people being sheltered there are convent schoolgirls and half are – what term of art should I use – streetwalkers.

BALE: Streetwalkers, prostitutes, courtesans. They are an unlikely mix and it definitely creates a storm within this, you know, church whilst this far more horrific storm is raging outside.

SIMON: Let’s play a clip, if we could. John Miller and his, I think we could safely say, favorite among the women, Mo, played by Ni Ni, unveils her plans to make John Miller their ticket out of Nanjing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, “THE FLOWERS OF WAR”)

NI NI: (as Yu Mo) I want you to take us out of Nanking.

BALE: (as John Miller) Huh? Yeah, right. Let me do this first.

NI: I’m serious. Why else do you think we’re flirting with you?

BALE: Out of Nanking, how?

NI: I don’t know how, but I know your face is the way out of here. The Japanese won’t touch Westerners.

BALE: And what you’re hearing there, he’s looking for a different kind of business transaction all together with Ni Ni’s character, and then she’s using that as leverage for him as a Westerner that he could help her. There was this international zone set up by Westerners, by John Rabe primarily and incredibly people – Minnie Vautrin – and there was a missionary called John McGee, as well. And these people, it’s estimated, were responsible for saving up to 200, 250,000 lives. And so the locals very much saw that a Western face was the key to escape from the city.

SIMON: We’re talking about this drifter John Miller, who is unexpectedly cast into this role of a priest. What do you think got to your character that made him rise to the occasion?

BALE: So, he appears to be an absolute, you know, reckless, drunken, good-time guy who cares nothing about anybody but just making a quick buck for himself and moving on. And that’s indeed how he would be thinking of this war to start with, that it would just be a tale he could tell over some beers with some buddies back in the States, or wherever the hell he’s going to wind up around the world. And it means nothing to him. But eventually it comes to be his own war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, “THE FLOWERS OF WAR”)

BALE: (as John Miller) I’m looking for two women. They got shiny dresses. I need to find them. They’re in trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (as character) Why are you dressed like this? What is this?

BALE: I got drunk. I woke up. I was just dressed as a priest. I…

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Who is this?

BALE: This is George. This is George. Have you seen them?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Seen who?

BALE: The women.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: There’s women piled up all over the street.

BALE: Have you seen them? You haven’t seen them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: No.

BALE: You haven’t seen them?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: I haven’t seen any women, no. You think it’s safe to be looking at, looking for women right now?

BALE: Can you help me with tools?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Tools for what?

BALE: I got to fix a truck.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Fix a truck for what?

BALE: I got to help George. I got to help some girls. I got to help some women, prostitutes and I got to help them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: What? Are you kidding me? You’re talking about prostitutes and trucks and tools. I’m talking about not dying in China. I’m leaving right now.

BALE: You’re leaving Nanking right now?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Do you want to go? There’s a boat. It’s waiting for us. I’m leaving right now. If you want to go, then let’s go. It’s your last chance.

BALE: I got to find them. I can’t leave.

There was one young boy called George in the movie – such a wonderful actor – and then the convent girls. Really, the main character of the piece is a young character called Shu, and the whole movie is told through her eyes. And I write and I met these girls and they all had tears coming down their cheeks. And I thought, oh, OK, OK, they’re in the middle of a scene. I won’t disturb them too much. And I saw they did a scene, and then a couple of days later I saw them again and they were crying again. And then every time I saw them they were crying, and I was thinking, this is appalling. Like, I know how much it takes out of somebody, how exhausting it is when you’re in that state, and I was trying to work out how on earth are they maintaining this all the time? And I was starting to think these girls are going to get sick. And then what was fantastic – it was a real ray of light – was one of them at one point, she sees me looking at them and just looking concerned, but I’m not quite sure what the hell to do. And she looks up and she winks and smiles. And they’re just fantastic actresses. And they can cry their eyes out and keep you fooled. And all the time they’re telling jokes with each other and then as soon as Yimou would walk by, (makes sound) they’d start crying again. And then as soon as he would go on, they’d make little jokes. But they were better actors that I will ever be able to be.

SIMON: What is fun about acting?

BALE: I think that there’s something that seems to be in every single child where there is an enjoyment of role-playing. And I love the psychology of recognizing how different you can make yourself. And I just find the whole notion that as adults we get to be storytellers, just hilarious but something that I would never want to miss out on.

SIMON: Christian Bale. His new film, “The Flowers of War.” Speaking from Beverly Hills. Mr. Bale, thanks so much.

BALE: Thank you very much.

By Scott Simon.

You can listen to the interview here.