In a globalized age, Chinese and American pop culture mix in unexpected ways. Taiwanese singers borrow from hip-hop and R&B. Locked-out NBA players join mainland basketball teams. And Batman — or, at least, the man who plays him — is called upon to complete an unlikely mission: save scores of Nanjing women from brutal Japanese soldiers.
In a sign of the growing East-West cooperation in filmmaking, Christian Bale, the on-screen incarnation of Bruce Wayne and his caped alter ego, is starring in "The Flowers of War," a $94-million movie opening Dec. 23 that is China's submission for the foreign-language Oscar this season.
Directed by Zhang Yimou, the filmmaker behind modern Chinese classics such as "Hero" and "Raise the Red Lantern" (and mastermind of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics), "Flowers" shows how people from radically different backgrounds can come together to create a movie with potentially broad appeal. The film is, after all, a uniquely Chinese story told largely through a veteran actor of Hollywood blockbusters.
It also shows how that combination can pose challenges — particularly on the question of language. The film, the most expensive in China's history, contains dialogue that's about 60% Mandarin, with the rest in English.
"I didn't speak a word of English, so I really needed to trust Christian," Zhang said in Mandarin, via a translator.
For his part, Bale, who does not speak any Mandarin, said it was a difficulty they were able to overcome. "It's amazing how much you can have a language barrier and still break down a communication barrier," the actor said in an interview with Zhang recently in Los Angeles. "I was able to communicate better with Yimou than with many English-speaking directors."
Their linguistic bridge was Zhang Mo, the director's 28-year-old-daughter and aide de camp, who speaks Mandarin and English fluently and was a frequent presence on set.
In the 145-minute film, Bale plays John Miller, a carpetbagging American mortician looking to make a quick buck in China as the Japanese invade the city of Nanjing in 1937. When he holes up in a Catholic boarding school where teenage students and prostitutes have taken refuge from the fighting, Miller suddenly finds himself responsible for their welfare. As the horrors of the war close in — a Japanese commander, for instance, demands that the girls "sing" for officers at a military parade, code for rape — Miller is given a crash course in atrocities as well as his own capacity for sacrifice.
Zhang said he was moved to cast Bale on the recommendation of Steven Spielberg. Bale starred in Spielberg's 1987 hit "Empire of the Sun," playing a young boy struggling to survive in Japanese-occupied China during World War II. (Bale, for his part, said he was "completely oblivious" to the connection between the two films when he committed to "Flowers." "It's a different lifetime for me," Bale said of "Empire of the Sun." "I barely remember that experience.")
Zhang had seen only Bale's two Batman films and said he initially had doubts, from those viewings, about Bale's ability to play the Miller character. But when he arrived for a meeting at Bale's house and found books about the rape of Nanjing on his coffee table, he was convinced. "It showed he was serious about this, more serious than anyone else I talked to," Zhang said.
Zhang demurred when asked if the actor's Hollywood star power was a factor, though said he believed this role would cause Bale to be nearly as famous in China as he is in the West.
With a kind of reluctant heroism, Bale's character in "Flowers" in a strange way echoes his trademark Batman role. (The third and final movie in that franchise, "The Dark Knight Rises," comes out next summer.) And Miller puts on a priest's vestments to boost his standing vis-à-vis the Japanese officers, a gesture that could evoke comparisons to his Batman guise. But Bale seems hesitant to acknowledge any parallels to "Dark Knight" or the grimaced heroes of some of his other films.
"I'm not looking for a pattern in my work; that's an outsider's perspective," said the actor. "I just thought this was the approach to take this character — with wartime situations, it's always the surprising [kind of] heroism that you get out of people."
The Welsh-born, Los Angeles-based actor said he didn't choose the role to make a statement about Chinese-U.S. cooperation. He was inspired to take the role because of being spurred, he said, by the "novelty factor" of making a movie in China, as well as the opportunity to work with Zhang, whom he met at the Telluride Film Festival nearly 20 years ago. As for future collaborations, Bale said, "I absolutely would work with Yimou again, but that's not to say I necessarily want to work in China again and again."
Still, "Flowers" will almost certainly be seen as a weather vane for Chinese-American filmic collaboration. The film's executive producers include William Kong, the producer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and former Universal Pictures co-chairman David Linde. The film was adapted by well-known novelist Liu Heng from an acclaimed historical novel by Yan Geling. The Chinese actors are largely unknowns, even in China.
Mainland Chinese films have struggled to catch on in Europe and America, but this wartime epic, with its sense of spectacle, its schmaltzy story of redemption and its classic Hollywood feel, may offer one of the better chances for success. "It's not the only film that's a collaboration of the East and the West, but in none of the other movies is the collaboration as organic," Zhang said of the movie, which opens this week in China. "I think it will give people hope about what can be done."
Financed by producer Zhang Weiping, a longtime partner of Zhang Yimou's, with money from Minsheng Bank and the state-owned Bank of China, the picture is one of the most elaborate ever made in mainland China. Shooting took place over about six months, with a section of Beijing cordoned off and built up to look like 1930s Nanjing.
But despite the Hollywood-level production values — large-scale battle scenes evoke a kind of urbanized "Saving Private Ryan," and Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers" also come to mind — "Flowers" also has a decidedly homespun feel. Ni Ni, the film's 23-year-old female lead (she plays a prostitute whom Miller falls for), was an unknown plucked from an acting class shortly before the start of production. "Christian Bale was my favorite actor. He was just so sexy," Ni said in a recent interview, sounding as much like a schoolgirl as a costar.
Bale said, half-smiling, that he worried this film would create a level of recognition for him on the streets of China, and that one of the things he liked about shooting so far away is the relative anonymity, not to mention the remove from Hollywood. "I cultivated a reputation for not getting back to anyone while I'm shooting a movie, and with this I had the added advantage of the different time zone," he said.
He added that he had no inkling as to whether the film would catch on commercially — it is a wartime movie with heavy doses of a foreign language — either in China or abroad. "I'm terrible at predicting box office," he said. "I thought 'Titanic' was going to bomb."