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Clearly not satisfied just being in American films that dominate the box office, Christian Bale is now working to secure huge U.S. returns for a Chinese production. The L.A. Times is reporting that attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival were given a 20-minute glimpse of The Flowers of War (formerly called Heroes of Nanking), a historical Chinese epic starring Bale and directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). The reason for the name change is not disclosed, but perhaps the hope was the more violent-sounding title would attract American audiences. I have to say if there is one director who may be able to pull off a financial win stateside for a Chinese film, it would be Yimou. Hero managed an impressive $53 million at the box office here in the U.S., and deservedly so.
The plot of The Flowers of War will center on a foreign mortician who comes to China in 1937 to bury a priest. He has the misfortune of being there just as Japanese forces are taking over the capital and epic battles rage all around him. The late priest’s cathedral was also a school for girls in which the mortician must now pose as a priest to avoid incarceration by the advancing Japanese army. But he is forced to take a more active role in the conflict when the soldiers demand the use of the young female students as “entertainment” for their troops. There seem to be familiar Chinese themes at play within this plot, namely the demonizing of the Japanese. Other recent films such as Legend of the Fist and the Ip Man, films, all starring Donnie Yen, have also examined this volatile historical relationship.
But let’s face it; it’s not going to be the historical context of the film that wins over blockbuster-addicted American audiences. Luckily, The Flowers of War has a budget close to $100 million dollars and is said to feature some truly stunning battle sequences. I for one hope these sequences are more akin to high-octane, unhinged battles in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins than the more colorful metaphoric ballets of Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers. Granted, I understand we’re talking about vastly different time periods than the 20th century setting of The Flowers of War, but I’m referring more to tone than anything else.
The L.A. Times article notes that the reaction to the film’s footage was enthusiastic, but not overwhelming. As a result, many questions will arise as to whether this risky undertaking will bear fruit. But again, I believe that if Yimou can produce box office triumph selling Jet Li to American audiences in Hero, he should have no trouble drawing Batman fans to theaters to watch Christian Bale in a new adventure film regardless of its nationality.