New York Daily News (January 21st, 2012)


Christian Bale packed up, bid his family farewell and went off to war.

The Welsh actor was drafted by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “Curse of the Golden Flower”) to star in the country’s most ambitious and expensive film ever, “The Flowers of War,” a brutal, yet ultimately uplifting tale set during the Japanese assault on Nanjing in 1937. The movie, which opened in New York Dec. 21, goes into wider release Friday.

That Bale, 37, would be working in a country where he didn’t know the language, the sole foreigner on the set in a culture that didn’t believe in coddling the crew with days off — there are no union protections there — wasn’t going to dissuade him. He is a guy, after all, who dropped one third of his body weight for his role in 2004’s “The Machinist.”

“This was a Chinese production, a Chinese director, I was going to be very isolated in terms of the language,” Bale told the Daily News. “[But] that novel experience was something I wanted to enjoy.”

Not all of his experiences in China, though, were enjoyable.

Accompanied by a CNN camera crew and reporter, Bale took an eight-hour pilgrimage to a small village in Shandong province to pay his respects to a blind lawyer who has been put under house arrest and regular harassment by the Chinese government. The Batman actor’s attempt to visit Chen Guangcheng, an activist against forced abortions as part of the country’s one-child policy, was foiled by plainclothes security guards who roughed up Bale.

“At one point, I started getting dragged back toward these other vans where they tried to take me and I realized that it had become very serious,” said Bale, who adds that he had heard of incidents where other Chen supporters had been whisked away and beaten.

“The other people I was with were shouting at me, ‘get away, get away right now. If you get in that van who knows what would happen.’ So I fought my way off and we got away.”

But Bale — who asks that the Daily News make clear that his excursion was done without the support or knowledge of the filmmakers behind “The Flowers of War” — isn’t some flighty celebrity who proceeded on a whim. He knew there was a good chance the attempt could unfold exactly as it did, but filming it would put humanitarian pressure on the government.

“To me it was a very simple gesture,” said Bale. “I felt like it was appropriate for me to make an attempt to bring awareness to that man’s plight.”

He’d rather put the spotlight for now back on the film. In “The Flowers of War,” Bale stars as John Miller, an alcoholic drifter who seeks shelter in a church where a cluster of schoolchildren and a dozen prostitutes are hiding out from the Japanese force that is raping, pillaging and murdering their way through Nanjing. Posing as a priest, Miller has to find a way to protect his young charges from being turned into sex slaves by the invading soldiers.

Shooting the $100 million epic was almost as intense as the carnage on screen, and even Bale, himself a father, struggled at times shooting a scene where a child was murdered in front of him.

Part of the reason he accepted the gig, though, was to shine a spotlight on an ugly period in history.

“You have to let it in, but then you have to breathe it out again,” he said, exhaling loudly. “So it doesn’t destroy you.”

It was a much different experience than the three-week whirlwind he experienced in the country as a 13-year-old filming Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” Now there he was, the veteran in an inexperienced cast of real Nanjing students that legendary director Zhang Yimou had recruited.

Bale is very proud of Zhang’s final product, even if the movie got snubbed from the recently announced shortlist of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film.

“We’re so bloody spoiled to do what we do,” the actor says, “that to start complaining when an award doesn’t come our way … is to lose perspective on just how fortunate we are to be in this position in the first place.”

By Ethan Sacks.