For over thirty years, director Zhang Yimou has been one of his country’s most respected exports thanks to award-winning films like Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. When the Olympics were held in China, he was called upon to direct the opening and closing ceremonies, and to date, no other Chinese filmmaker has had more films put forward for consideration in the Oscar Foreign Language category than him.
His new film The Flowers of War moves forward in time from his previous war epics, which were set hundreds of years in China’s past, to the more recent atrocities committed by the Japanese during the invasion of Nanjing in 1937 at the beginning of World War II.
It also teams the prestigious Chinese director with a recent Oscar winner in Christian Bale, playing John Miller, an American mortician who gets caught in Nanjing during the Japanese invasion, forcing him to find shelter in a well-protected church where a group of teen schoolgirls are being kept in hiding from the invading soldiers hoping to claim them for their victory celebration. With the help of a group of boisterous local call girls, Miller disguises himself as a priest to protect the innocence of the young girls from the wartime atrocities taking place around them.
It’s already been reported that Zhang’s latest movie is the most expensive film in Chinese history, and while it includes much of the cinematic artistry that’s made the filmmaker famous throughout the world, it also has some of the sensibilities of Western war movies and wartime romance dramas. It’s also the most English we’ve seen in any films from Zhang, roughly 50%, which didn’t prevent it from becoming his 7th film put forward by China for Oscar consideration.
ComingSoon.net had a rare opportunity to sit down with the legendary Chinese filmmaker when he came to New York City for a brief visit a few months back, but before that, we have an exclusive clip from the film featuring Christian Bale.
(Note: the following interview was done via interpreter, so some of his responses may not be the most grammatically perfect.)
ComingSoon.net: There have been other recent movies about the invasion of Nanking so what was it about the novel or the story that made you interested in telling your own?
Zhang Yimou: I actually read the novel in 2007, the year before the Olympics, and I really liked it because it’s very different from the other movies. This is told from a 13-year-old girl’s perspective and a prostitute’s perspective. Because that perspective shows humanity, that’s what intrigued me to make the film. When I finished the novel, I had this imagery stuck in my head which was the last shot of the movie itself, which has the bombing and smoke as it’s background, but then you see a line of women emerging from this war zone and coming from inside the church, so that imagery was also the key that I made this movie.
CS: Did you have to do a lot of your own research into what happened beyond what you read in the novel? Did you do any research into the location or the people involved?
Zhang: Yeah, I did tons of research on all aspects like location scouting and asking people who maybe are still alive or hear their families talking about it. I think the last survivor had already passed away, but there are their families and documents and historical books.
CS: How did you get Christian Bale involved with starring in it? He obviously had just been nominated for an Oscar at the time and this should get a larger Western audience due to his involvement. Did he have an English script for his part?
Zhang: At the beginning, I gave the English script to Steven Spielberg, a friend of mine, and asked him who he thought would be good for the part and he made a few suggestions–Christian was one of them–and then later, I asked the producers David Lindley and Bill Kong, who all recommended him as well as other candidates. When I spoke with Christian, he showed the most enthusiasm towards this project and we clicked right away even though there was the language barrier, but we felt like we could work on the same page and have the same skills working together. That’s how I got Christian Bale. One element that brought us together is that he likes to fine-tune the characters throughout the whole script. He knows that a lot of directors probably don’t want to change the wording of the script, so he was asking me if I was willing to change that and I said, “This is how I like to work. I like to change things and make it better and better over time, maybe even literally a day before shooting for that scene.” Throughout the whole process, Christian literally helped to shape the John Miller character the way he is right now and make the character a better character.
CS: I’ve heard that about Christian from other directors, that he’s very involved in developing the script and characters, but how was it working with an American in another language? I believe this is the first time you’ve directed an American actor.
Zhang: Before shooting, I actually spent tons of time with Christian, talking about the script and what has to be changed. Of course, the plot and the structure of the characters but fine-tuning the details, and literally two hours before shooting every day, we got together again just adding more details or editing out details, and that was pretty much the process. Just a lot of communication back and forth months before the production takes place and every single day before we start the scene. Christian is very humble and always asked what I wanted and then he gave me a few options as well to let me choose from.
CS: You’ve previously done historic war movies but you’ve brought artistic and cinematic beauty into those environments, which is not that common, but here you have World War II and a very difficult time in China’s history, so how were you still able to instill beauty into this situation?
Zhang: The script itself, because it’s from a 13-year-old girl’s perspective is very flexible. It could be anything in terms of all other movies about the past of Nanjing, everything is so big with so much violence, so I wanted the combination of both. I wanted to choose from a 13-year-old girl’s perspective’s moments so I was thinking if she was still living right now she’d probably be 90-something years old. If you asked her how she felt about wartime, most of the things would probably be a blur to her, but maybe a few moments of that experience were vivid and memorable, so it’s the same way I wanted to make the movie, through those moments. One small moment amidst the global scale to express this movie.
CS: I thought you had some of the most beautiful explosions I’ve seen in a film with the colored clothing mixed with the rubble when buildings are blown up, which were very unique. How did you go about finding the young girls? I’m not sure how many of them actually acted before so how did you work with them on their parts?
Zhang: That’s my specialty, training new actors and actresses, so the process is quite challenging, because you have to find everyone locally who is native to the Nanjing dialect, so there’s already limitations to begin with and there are fewer candidates. The process took about two years to find each one of them and give them tons of training in terms of performance and the range of emotions to make them flexible. Most directors would not want to deal with that; they want big stars to start with because it would be easier, but to me, it’s the opposite because I learn a lot from the actresses themselves because they’re new and never acted before and they offer a fresh perspective.
CS: What about dealing with the issue of having known actors like Christian Bale who everyone will know and mixing them with unknown actors while trying to find the best cast?
Zhang: Actually, the older actresses that played prostitutes, they know Christian really well because they saw Batman and his previous works, so they were really nervous on the film set working with him because they knew how big a star he was. But eventually over time, he gets along with people and they don’t get as nervous as they do in the beginning. As for the younger girls, who are 12 and 13, they had no idea who he was, because they really hadn’t seen that many movies, maybe none, and they were too young to watch many of his movies anyway, so they just thought he was an American hanging out on the set. They would tease him, they’d play and make faces with him, they laugh with him, and were very relaxed around him. In terms of the crews, we definitely had to make an English call sheet, which we’d never done before and nobody knew how that was done, and Christian doesn’t even look at call sheets, but we had to make it. Also, calling out the orders had to be done in English like “Action,” “back to 1,” “roll camera, roll sound,” all those sorts of things which also were challenging for me because I had never done that before, but I learned every phase and I said it on set so everyone understood. Actually, we were so used to the English phrases after Christian left that we were still using English phrases for another few months.
CS: In China, there are a lot of Western movies taking over theaters making it harder for Chinese movies to make a mark. This movie was made in a way that could appeal to Western audiences, so how do you think Chinese audiences accept it, since it’s a mix of what you normally do with American sensibilities? Have you heard from people in China who have seen it and how they feel about having so much English in a Chinese movie?
Zhang: Because we had a release in September for limited audiences, everyone was so curious. That’s why they wanted to see the movie, because 50% of it is in English and it’s such a contrast to my previous work which all was about the countryside of China, everyone was speaking in Chinese, so now is almost the opposite. So obviously, there were many who were very curious about this project and really looking forward to it. The fact that I don’t even speak a word of English and now I’m directing an English film is even more interesting and unique to the audience. Chinese audiences have now become more educated, so they like to see more foreign films and a collaboration between the two.
CS: That brings me to my next question which is whether this movie might be the transition for you to start directing Western films or was this a one-off thing and you wouldn’t necessarily want to go to Hollywood to look for projects?
Zhang: Of course, I will still focus on making Chinese movies mainly, but after this movie, I really learned a lot and it opened my mind and changed my perspective, and now I know that it’s doable to do something with a Hollywood star or even a Hollywood production. That way I’m more confident now so that maybe in the future I can do some collaboration project in Hollywood.
CS: Probably the hardest part about making this movie has to be the handling of the Japanese soldiers. Your previous films have had a huge audience in Japan, including “Curse of the Golden Flower,” so how do you handle the Japanese soldiers in a way that doesn’t alienate your Japanese audience.
Zhang: I’m also curious about that myself, how Japanese audiences will receive it, because the people who are Japanese on set as actors, they were all willing to come for this movie, putting the historical background aside and they came here for the story because it is a story based on humanity and about sacrifice and salvation so it was just a movie that it could be happening in any war setting but it happens to be this one, so everyone who worked on this film really just focused on the human side of the story but in terms of audiences, I’m curious myself. I don’t know what the outcome will be.
CS: It’s tough when you make a war movie because you have to be realistic and accurate to the times, but also have to be sympathetic to the fact it happened many many years ago. Do you have any idea what you might want to do next? Would it be another big movie or do you have any interest in doing another movie within this WWII setting? Or something contemporary and smaller?
Zhang: I don’t have a general direction yet for the next project because I have no good scripts in hand yet. I’m still searching for the right script, but obviously I love to try all new things so it will not be focusing mainly on one thing, but I want to try all different possibilities.
CS: Lastly, you had a movie called “The Love of the Hawthorn Tree,” which came out in Asia but was never released here. Do you think we’ll ever see that here? It sounds like a nice love story.
Zhang: It’s a pity that it never got released in the States, because I really hoped American audiences would watch it because it is the period I grew up and it’s a love story, too, so it’s quite endearing. I do hope American audiences can watch that movie.
The Flowers of War opens in New York, Los Angeles and possibly other cities on January 20.