Zhang Yimou requests Bale

Batman star to make debut in a Chinese language movie

Zhang Yimou requests Bale

“Get this, my next movie’s in Chinese,” Bale tells Spielberg

He’s played a pampered schoolboy in pre-Second World War Shanghai and a superhero in a bat suit from Gotham City. But can Christian Bale bridge both US and Chinese movie audiences?

That’s a question we will soon find out. Film director Zhang Yimou recently cast Bale, star of The Dark Knight, as well as Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, for his upcoming movie about the 1937 Nanjing massacre. The film is actually an adaption of a novel by Yan Geling with Bale playing the leading role as a priest who saves the lives of Chinese refugees fleeing the Japanese assault. The working title is Nanjing Heroes.

Grim subject matter, which has been covered elsewhere on screen – Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death also told the tale of the Nanjing massacre. But Zhang said he hopes to bring a different angle by telling the story through a woman’s perspective. “We have made many, many Nanjing movies,” he admits, “but they are mostly like we’re talking to ourselves. A lot of young people in Western countries might not know about it. So I think perhaps by doing it this way… we could let maybe 100 or 200 million young audiences watch this film and maybe then they will known what happened in Nanjing in 1937.”

China is no stranger to historical movies with political overtones – more often than not they’re about hostile foreign military incursions. What’s more unusual here is the participation of a British star. Old movies about the Opium Wars, for example, would tend to cast Uighurs from Xinjiang in the role of British imperialists, notes Peter Hessler in his book Oracle Bones.

Then again among Chinese cinemagoers, Bale is almost as unknown as a Uighur actor. That’s because The Dark Knight, which made $1 billion globally at the box office, was never shown in China. Some speculate that Chinese censors were offended by scenes in which Batman apprehends a Chinese money launderer. Still the Hollywood actor, who has just won an award as Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes, can certainly lend some star power when the film shows abroad.

Asked if casting Bale was a ploy to raise Chinese cinema’s profile in the US market – still 10 times bigger than China’s box office – Zhang told Hollywood Reporter: “It’s the overall strategy for Chinese cinema to approach the world and broaden its influence but casting Bale was a coincidence because the script happened to have an English-speaking part in the lead.”

To ensure the film has some sort of exportability, Nanjing Heroes will be shot about 40% in English and the rest in Mandarin Chinese. At $90 million the budget is roughly equal to John Woo’s Red Cliff (see WiC1), and close to the total box office take for Aftershock, now China’s second highest grossing domestic film (Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, which has so far made Rmb665 million, or $100 million, now holds the crown). By comparison, the New York Times thinks 20th Century Fox spent at least $300 million producing Avatar.

Zhang declined to speculate on the likely success of his latest project. “You can never plan for box office success,” says the director. “You can only put your entire life into making a film and hope for the best.” Zhang’s financial backers will be hoping for a little more than that.

In fact, Chinese policymakers are trying to foster homegrown production and distribution companies big enough to compete with US film giants like Time Warner and Sony Pictures. And the number of locally produced films did increase 12% in 2009 from a year earlier, to 456, says the Wall Street Journal. The spike has been spurred by the gradual consolidation of studio companies in the last decade. According to Southern Weekend, 26 films took more than Rmb100 million at the box office last year. However, of these 9 were foreign and 80% of the films produced last year made a loss.

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