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‘Flowers Of War’ Sprout From Nanjing Massacre

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
January 21, 2012

Christian Bale plays a drifter in his new film. His character, John Miller, is no Batman; he’s an Oklahoma mortician by trade but a soldier of fortune in temperament.

Miller comes to do a bit of business in Nanjing (formerly known as Nanking), China, arriving in 1937, just as the Japanese army invades and brutalizes the city.

The Nanjing massacre is one of the defining historical events of modern China.

Women were particular victims of war crimes, and unlikely women become heroes in The Flowers of War.

Bale is perhaps best known for playing Batman and won an Academy Award last year for The Fighter. The film is China’s Oscar nominee for best foreign language film. Director Zhang Yimou made the movie at a reported cost of $100 million.

A Unique Opportunity

Bale tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon he was “very interested” in having a chance to work with Zhang.

“It’s not very often that you get an opportunity to work on a movie that’s … 60 percent in Mandarin, made within China,” he says, “and get to experience that entirely different culture of filmmaking.”

Some reviewers and people in the film industry have charged that this expensive film was part of a Chinese government effort to soften its image. Bale says he “had no interest in making a movie with that in mind whatsoever.

“I always do say that once you’re within a movie … sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees, but I’ve really assessed this one, and I can’t bring myself to come to agree with it in any way whatsoever,” he says, “and knowing [Zhang], I do not think that he would ever have any interest in entertaining that at all.”

For many on set, The Flowers of War was their first film.

“I always like working with people making their first film. You know, there’s that enthusiasm, that naivete about it,” Bale says.

He says the director wouldn’t tell the cast what they would shoot the next day until late the night before, which Bale says “just gives that extra spontaneity … It’s far more human.”

‘A Storm Within’

Bale describes his character as a mechanically inclined jack-of-all-trades from the U.S., an escapee of the Dust Bowl who ends up working on cargo ships.

“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 says. “He’s definitely pursuing excess with a vengeance as a means, we find out later, to deal with pain.”

Miller, the character, finds himself in a Catholic church in the midst of the massacre. Among those sheltered there are convent school girls and prostitutes.

“They are an unlikely mix, and [it] definitely creates a storm within this church whilst this far more horrific storm is raging outside,” Bale says.

While Miller hopes for a certain kind of business transaction with one of the women, he finds out that she wants him to be their ticket out of Nanjing.

“Why else do you think we’re flirting with you?” she asks him.

When he asks her how they would escape, she responds: “I don’t know how, but I know your face is the way out of here. The Japanese won’t touch Westerners.”

Bale says Westerners set up an international zone that reportedly saved around 200,000 lives.

“And so the locals very much saw that a Western face was the key to escape from the city,” he says.

Later, Miller is given the chance to leave instead of searching for women who he believes are in trouble. He decides to pass up the opportunity and not abandon them.

“So he appears to be an absolute reckless, drunken, good-time guy, who cares nothing about anybody but just making a quick buck for himself and moving on,” Bale says, “and that’s indeed how he would be thinking of this war to start with … But eventually it comes to be his own war.”

The Art Of Acting

The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Bale says. He says when he first arrived and met the girls, he found them crying during a scene and decided not to disturb them. Then every time he saw them, they were crying.

“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?” he says.

Then once, as Bale looked on concerned, an actress winked and smiled at him.

“They’re just fantastic actresses, and they can cry their eyes out and keep you fooled. All the time, they’re telling jokes with each other, and then as soon as [Zhang] would walk by, they’d start crying again,” he says. “But they were … better actors than I will ever be able to be.”

Bale says he gets enjoyment out of “the psychology of recognizing how different you can make yourself” while acting.

“And I just find the whole notion that as adults we get to be storytellers just hilarious,” he says, “but something that I would never want to miss out on.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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