The Flowers of War: Christian Bale and the making of a hero

Today, for my all-to-close-to-Christmas birthday, my hubby took me on a date. We saw the new and somewhat controversial Zhang Yi Mou directed “The Flowers of War,” starring Christian Bale.

For those of you who haven’t been following the controversy involving Mr. Bale, the movie is a period piece set during 1937′s Rape of Nanjing. Since it’s a war film, and especially since it is a Chinese-made film about the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, it naturally involves a lot of violence and, although the camera never focuses directly on it, rape. That’s to be expected, you’ve had fair warning and should know what you’re getting into if you choose to watch this movie. And I think if you are a laowai living in China, you should choose to see it. More about why in a bit. What you’ll not need to worry about is the language of the film: it’s in Chinese, sometimes in the local Nanjinghua, but it has terrific English subtitles.

The film’s been accused of being a propaganda piece made by the Chinese government, and I can understand why those accusations were made. It’s in some ways your typical Chinese war movie: Chinese soldiers = brave and heroic, Japanese soldiers = scum of the earth. To be honest though, if you’ve seen any of the historical photos of what happened in Nanjing, or read some of the Chinese survivors accounts, you might start to understand why the film shows the events that it does.

Yes, it’s very one-sided, but I think it’s understandable considering the atrocities that really did occur in Nanjing, and in China’s current political climate it would be unheard of to release a movie that didn’t portray the Japanese in that way. I think it’s unfortunate that this kind of movie is often the only viewpoint on the Japanese that many Chinese are exposed to. I, of course, do not condone the sort of xenophobic knee-jerk hatred that spews from my students’ mouths every time the subject of Japan comes up, but I really don’t think you can expect anything else out of this kind of movie — made in China, at this time. Watching this movie may least help shed a bit of light on why those reactions happen.

I went into the movie expecting all that. Actually when I first heard that it was a propaganda piece about Nanjing, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see it at all. But then Christian Bale went and decided to try to visit Chen Guangcheng in Linyi, and I suddenly decided it might be worth a watch. You know how, in advertising, they say any publicity is good publicity? I know the Chinese government is not terribly pleased about Bale’s little stunt, but I bet it will increase box office for The Flowers of War! A lot of people are saying that what Bale did was little more than a publicity stunt, and are criticizing CNN for their role in it, but I have to say, I really respect what he tried to do.

Bale came into China knowing basically nothing about the country. The New Yorker states:

“He told reporters that he knew little of the history before starting work on the picture, and, when asked on the red carpet about whether the film was over the top, he blinked, “I haven’t ever considered that question before.”

His character in the movie knew nothing in the beginning, either. He struggled to speak even a few words of Chinese, and he was the stereotypical money-grubbing, drunk, womanizing laowai that I cringe to be associated with. Watching that part of the movie was frustrating. I wanted to shout at Christian for agreeing to such a negative portrayal of us laowai… did he even know that he was playing into all the stereotypes? Sure, he could go back to Hollywood and all that but the rest of us have to live here and get all the dirty looks and negative associations.

But Christian Bale decided to learn something about the country he was in. Not only did he learn something, he decided to try to do something about it. He decided to try to visit Chen Guangcheng, his new personal hero. Hopefully you’ve heard of Chen Guangcheng and how he is being held under house arrest in Linyi. After reading his biography in several posts at Seeing Red in China, he’s become one of my heroes too. Bale caused a ton of controversy, but I think his heart was in the right place. He was trying to use his celebrity to make a difference the way so many of his film personas (Batman?) do. How many of us use the tiny bit of laowai celebrity we have to do something to make a difference?

In Flowers of War, (slight spoiler alert) Bale’s character also has a change of heart, steps up and does something heroic to redeem himself. In spite of my low expectations going in, I kind of ended up liking this movie, because it takes people, real, flawed people from the dregs of society and gives them a chance to do something good, something heroic, something that will make a real and lasting difference.

I don’t know if Christian Bale was really changed. I wonder whether he will continue with his activism, whether his concern about issues in China will lead him to continue doing heroic and perhaps foolish stunts or whether he will go back to his movie star life and forget about life in Linyi, but I have to say, I think he did something worthwhile with his time here, both with the movie and with Chen Guangcheng, and he’s made at least one new fan here in Hainan.