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10 Questions with THE FLOWERS OF WAR star Christian Bale and director Zhang Yimou!

By InCinemas  /  31 Mar 2012 (Saturday)

From early films like Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) to recent efforts like Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) has consistently proved himself as China’s most outstanding director of the past 25 years. Yet even by the high standards he sets himself, his latest project THE FLOWERS OF WAR《金陵十三钗》is a potent emotional ride akin to some of his earlier works. 

Zhang talks about what drew him to this particularly part of Chinese history, how it felt to helm the most expensive film ever made in his country and what it was like to collaborate with the explosives team that worked on Saving Private Ryan (1998). Zhang is joined in the discussion by his star, Christian Bale, who gives an insight into what it was like to work in China – and be accompanied by his own personal bodyguard!

Q1: What drew you to this period of China’s history?

Zhang: This period of history is very common in China. Everyone knows this period of history. But to me, it’s really not the history itself; it could be any war, anywhere in the world. To me, it’s more the story. When I read Yan Geling’s book, I was more intrigued by the personal side of the story, from a 13 year-old girl’s perspective. Rather than it being a big epic history tale. So for my movie, the history is just the backdrop. It happens to be a really great story, happening in that period of history.

Q2: Christian, had you always wanted to be in a Chinese movie?

Bale: I’m not in a position yet – I think there are only one or two actors that are – where I can say ‘I want to be in a Chinese movie. Make it happen!’ I’m not in that kind of position. I was just fortunate enough that Yimou came to me with it. What I was looking for, and always am looking for, are new experiences. Certainly this was that. I love the idea of more crossovers in international filmmaking. There are so many wonderful directors, in so many countries, it’s a shame to limit yourself to America or Britain. Yimou is one of the finest storytellers around, so that’s how that kind of happened. 

Q3: George, the little boy in the film, says “Life is a gift. And it’s not ours to throw away”. Do you see that as a key theme in the film?

Zhang: Absolutely. This kind of theme you can see throughout the whole movie; the fact that life is sacred, precious and you can’t throw it away. That’s why there is a group of people, the prostitutes, who want to protect a more vulnerable group – the children. That’s why the whole theme is sacrifice, love and giving up your own life for others.

Q4: Did your background on Empire of the Sun (1987) help at all? And how do you compare Steven Spielberg to Zhang Yimou?

Bale: It didn’t help. It was intriguing. Returning a couple of decades later was interesting. But that had been the bubble of an American production within China. And this was a Chinese production, so it was a whole new experience. 

I don’t like to compare directors! But they’re both two of the finest around. The wonderful thing about directors is that they don’t ever work together, so they don’t know how other people work. They all work  very, very differently. 

Q5: What was the toughest challenge when approaching this film? 

Zhang: The biggest challenge for me was how to have Christian’s character, John Miller, organically come together with a group of Chinese characters. That’s the biggest challenge. Previously, there were movies like that. But the foreign characters never went into any great depth. And the character never developed, and it was never satisfying for anybody. 

It was almost like a trap. Immediately, people are thinking about the two nations coming together – a trap that people easily fall into. And I was very aware of that, and I didn’t want to fall into that trap. So that’s why I worked with Christian thoroughly to alter the script and make it work very organically. So we very carefully changed the script and reformed it, to make it is the way it is right now. That was a very difficult process for me.

(Read InCinemas Review of The Flowers of War - by Eternality Tan)

Q6: And how did you find getting on with all the girls?

Bale: Absolutely, yeah. They were very welcoming, both: the ladies and the choir girls. The ladies were all consummate actresses, really excellent. It was very funny, making those scenes. And the young girls were fantastic at crying – I was really worried about them when I first arrived because they didn’t stop. They didn’t stop crying! 

I don’t know about you, for me it takes a lot before I cry, and then when I do, I’m like ‘Ah, man! I’m spent. I’m done.’ You know what I mean? Like any scene I had, where it was emotional, it was two takes at the most and after that I was dry, there was nothing going on. These girls could do it at the drop of a hat. I wish I had that talent. It was amazing. They had the absolute realism that kids have – be able to cry and then stop it. So I’d be walking by, going, ‘These girls are going to get ill. I’m not really comfortable with this!’ 

I wanted to give them all a hug. And then Yimou would walk past, and they’d be crying, in character, and then he’d walk off and they’d look up at me and laugh. I was like ‘They’re professionals!’ 

Q7: Did you feel pressure helming the most expensive Chinese production of all time?

Zhang: Of course it’s a lot of responsibility for me. Not the money issue. But more because we had all different people from all different backgrounds, speaking different languages, and we had to work in harmony. So for me as a director that was the biggest challenge. Luckily, that went really well. But for me, maybe I will focus on medium or smaller budgets, because they’re easier to manage. 

Q8: Christian, is there something that draws you to playing dark characters?

Bale: I think it’s just an interest in humanity. I’m interested in everything, where people can go to. Especially in a movie like this; the insanity of war, where soldiers are trained to do what our moral code throughout life teaches us not to do. Suddenly they’re being told the opposite; everything is turned on its head, as the abnormal becomes normal and atrocious things happen. And it happens terrifyingly often throughout the world, not just in Nanking.

Q9: You used the British team who rigged the explosions for Saving Private Ryan. How did you come to work with them?

Zhang: One of the executive producers recommended this team, and because they’re so famous due to their work on Saving Private Ryan, I was very keen to work with them. They’re very professional and safety is always the most important principle. We did have another Chinese team that were assisting them and learning from them. But a lot of scenes I realised we couldn’t do, exactly according to my wishes, simply because they weren’t safe enough. 

So we did make a lot of adjustments, but we were able to reach a mid-point agreement. One thing I felt was very beneficial, in Chinese filmmaking, with explosions, a lot of accidents have happened in the past. Not on my films but in general…and when this team came to China, they taught us how to do scenes in a safe way. So we almost got a free lesson from them! Hopefully in the future, fewer accidents will start happening. The team itself, they probably don’t actually realise how much benefit they brought to Chinese filmmaking. 

(View movie showtimes for The Flowers of War at all cineplexes here!)

Q10: Did you manage to keep your anonymity while shooting in China?

Bale: I must say, I continue to live my life in a very simple manner, and people tend to be very respectful and polite to me. Of course, you get recognised sometimes but it’s never so intrusive that it becomes a burden, as I see happen to some people, and I really appreciate that. 

In China, the movie has done incredibly well, so maybe it would be different if I went back there now, but we were also shooting out in a place 45 minutes out of Nanking, so there was really nobody to mix with except for the crew. Thankfully they all recognised me – I didn’t have to remind them! But that was it. I didn’t go to many of the big metropolises for an awful long time. 

But there was a very funny incident, where the producers felt like I needed a bodyguard while I was there. I’m not accustomed to that. I never have that. I always feels like it draws attention to you. But a really nice guy who was from the army told me he was there when Obama came and he was there when all these political heads of state came…and I said, ‘I’m not a political head of state. Nobody knows who the hell I am.’ 

So I said, ‘Can we take this a little bit easy and see how this goes?’ So the guy would walk ahead of me, and he’d tell me every step I had to walk down! We’d walk down a staircase and he’d present every step; I’d be stopping and go ‘Is there another? Oh, there’s another! OK!’ He was always dressed in black, 6ft 4, with wraparound shades and knuckle-dusters on his hand, with a big thing saying ‘bodyguard’. And I’d say ‘Could you go a bit more incognito?’ Which for him was taking off the knuckle-dusters! 

And there was one time I was walking down the street in Nanking, and there was a man walking a bit more slowly in front of us, and he touched the guy on the shoulder, picked him up, moved him to the side, and then presents the street to me! I was like ‘No, you can’t do this!’ So there was a great breaking in between the two of us. And really not necessary for me. Nobody has a clue who I am anyway! It was making people fascinated – like ‘Who the hell is this guy? Who is this idiot who thinks he can pick people up and move them over?’ But we got that worked out. 

THE FLOWERS OF WAR is rated NC16 (Violence and Sexual Violence) and is now showing InCinemas.

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