BEIJING — On the red carpet Zhang Yimou squints at the wall of photographers and fixes his face into a grin. This should be familiar territory for the director ofHero and House of Flying Daggers, but after a hurried sojourn with media, Zhang scuttles away leaving Christian Bale, the star of his latest film The Flowers of War, to face the camera flashes and fans alone.

China’s biggest director has reason to be uneasy. Flowers – a USD100 million Oscar contender and the most expensive Chinese film ever made – opened to mixed reviews. Critics suggested that Zhang, who spearheaded the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, famed for both their political progressiveness and poetic cinematography, has lost his touch. Following the film’s release, Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou told AFP that ‘The Flowers of War is strangely devoid of emotional impact. It’s more calculated than inspired.’

‘We only wanted to create good art and make a good film,’ Zhang told press at the film’s premiere in Beijing last month. ‘Winning an Oscar was not the goal. You can only do all the hard work yourself, but the rest depends on the gods.’ Though Zhang has been nominated twice, a Chinese filmmaker is yet to win an Academy Award in a major category.

Adapted from 13 Flowers of Nanjing, a novel by Yan Geling about the Nanjing Massacre, this is Zhang’s nineteenth and most Western-friendly film to date.

At the Beijing premiere, Zhang tells Time Out what attracted him to the story. ‘In 2006 I read the book and thought it could be made into a film that is very different,’ he says in gravelly Mandarin. Dressed top-to-toe in black, Zhang’s face stands in contrast; a pale orb scored with deep creases and dark under-eye crescents giving the impression his 60 years have been thoroughly lived. ‘Looking back, the most important thing is to realise what happened in history is over. I made this film in pursuit of peace,’ Zhang says, adding that the film is largely about ‘the beauty of humanity and redemption.’

Set in the ravaged, corpse-strewn streets of 1937 Nanjing, the film opens at the moment the Japanese invaders extinguish the last Chinese defenders. Enter John Miller (Bale), an American mortician drifting around China who finds himself in Nanjing at the wrong moment. Miller takes refuge in a church that’s housing a clutch of teenage students who, mistaking him for a priest, look to him for leadership.

When a gaggle of exotic prostitutes arrive also seeking refuge, Miller – declaring ‘there’s no coffee, let’s get liquored up!’ – can’t believe his luck. The loveliest hooker of all, Yu Mo (played by newcomer Ni Ni) realises thelaowai is their ticket out and promises Miller that if he helps them she ‘will help [him] in ways you can’t imagine. All of us will.’ Then the Japanese attack, snatching the girl students, baying ‘we’ve got virgins!’ Miller, now donning priestly garb, steps up to protect his charges.

Zhang_Yimou_2As one of the defining atrocities of the Second Sino-Japanese war (between 150,000-300,000 Chinese civilians were slaughtered by Japanese soldiers) the Nanjing Massacre is an oft-depicted event in Chinese films, and was the subject of Lu Chuan’s critically lauded The City of Life and Death (2009), controversial for it’s compassionate portrayal of a Japanese soldier.

Zhang’s angle is different. In their brutal pursuit of virgins and bayoneting of women and children, the Japanese soldiers are two-dimensional demons. One character arguably adds nuance: Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), a music-loving Japanese colonel who visits the church and forces the students to sing for him. But his motive is soon revealed; he wants to take the girls to perform at the Japanese victory celebration. Read: they’ll be raped and killed.

Is this a propagandist work? When posed with the question at the press conference – which is in a hammer and sickle-bedecked government building – Zhang dodges it. Though his early work pushed censorship limits, (To Live, 1994, was banned in China for its sympathetic portrayal of life in the Cultural Revolution), Zhang hasn’t touched sensitive subject matter for years. In 2008 he orchestrated the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Instead, it’s Bale who says that anyone using the word ‘propaganda’ to describe Zhang’s film would be wrong. ‘That would be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction,’ says the Welsh actor. ‘If anybody had that response, I don’t think they’re looking closely enough at the movie.’

Bale’s casting, which makes him the first major Western actor to star in a Chinese film, is strategic. Just as Hollywood eyes the lucrative potential of China’s film market (DreamWorks Animation and Relativity Media are two of a recent slew of studios forging tracks into China), Zhang’s film is hoping to straddle audiences in the East and West, and the inclusion of an Oscar-winning actor will surely help. About 40 per cent of Flowers is in English, and after a limited US release last month, a wider release in the US and Europe is expected in the spring.

‘Hollywood has set its sights on this market,’ says Zhang, adding that it was Steven Spielberg who recommended Bale for the role. ‘With the Chinese market getting bigger and more important, I think the vital thing we need is a constant interaction and communication [between China and Hollywood], through which there will be better movies.’

We see flashes of ‘old Zhang’ in Flowers, moments of cinematic grace that harness the poetic vision of the director who specialised in cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy. In one particularly patriotic scene, a Chinese general blows himself up to take out the dozen Japanese soldiers attacking the church. As the explosion unfurls, delicate multicoloured silk scarves shimmer among the rocks and dust.

But despite these moments, on leaving the premiere it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Zhang, far removed from his rebellious filmmaking roots, has sidled too close to the Party’s vision. While it will be interesting to see how such a hotly anticipated film performs in the Chinese and Western markets, as a cinematic work, it disappoints.


From the print edition. Link to TimeOut