Christian Bale: An American In China

Director Zhang Yimou (left) and actor Christian Bale on the set of The Flowers of War.

Director Zhang Yimou (left) and actor Christian Bale on the set of The Flowers of War. YAO/Wrekin Hill Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption YAO/Wrekin Hill Entertainment

Christian Bale's latest character is a drifter. John Miller is no Batman; he's an Oklahoma mortician by trade and a soldier of fortune in temperament.

Miller comes to do business in Nanjing, China. He arrives in 1937 just as the Japanese army invades and brutalizes the city. Known as the Nanjing Massacre, the genocide that followed has become one of the defining historical events of modern China.

Bale is perhaps best known for playing Batman. He also won an Academy Award last year for The Fighter. His new movie, The Flowers of War, is China's Oscar nominee for best foreign language film. As Bale tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon, he couldn't pass up the chance to work with the film's director, Zhang Yimou.

A Unique Opportunity

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

Zhang wouldn't tell cast members what they would shoot the next day until late the night before. Keeping the actors in suspense "just gives that extra spontaneity," Bale says. "It's far more human."

The movie reportedly cost $100 million to make. Some critics charge that the film is an expensive attempt on the part of the Chinese government to soften its image, but Bale is confident that Zhang wouldn't be interested in propaganda efforts.

"I always do say that once you're within a movie ... sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees," he says. "But I've really assessed this [charge], and I can't bring myself to come to agree with it in any way whatsoever."

'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."

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese were slaughtered in the Nanjing Massacre, but the mass atrocities committed against the women gave rise to another name for the horror: The Rape of Nanjing. In The Flowers of War, Bale's character must choose between saving himself and helping a group of women escape the violence.

"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. "That's indeed how he would be thinking of this war to start with ... but eventually it comes to be his own war."

American John Miller (Bale)  must choose between saving himself and helping a group of Chinese women escape atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II.

American John Miller (Bale) must choose between saving himself and helping a group of Chinese women escape atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. Wrekin Hill Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Wrekin Hill Entertainment

The Art Of Acting

The Flowers of War was the first movie for many of the actors on the set. "I always like working with people making their first film," Bale says. "There's that enthusiasm, that naivete about it."

One of Bale's first encounters with his female costars was a scene where the women were sobbing. There were a lot of scenes where they had to cry.

"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.

As Bale looked on, an actress suddenly winked at him and smiled.

"They're just fantastic actresses," he says. "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 his own joy of acting comes from "the psychology of recognizing how different you can make yourself."

"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."

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