Christian Bale will star in Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s latest historical film, Thirteen Girls in Jinling City (working title), as an American priest witnessing the so-called Nanjing Massacre during World War II.

At a press conference held in Beijing today, Zhang and his producer Zhang Weiping also announced that the project will recruit special effects professional Joss Williams (Saving Private Ryan, Troy) to handle special effects in the explosion and battle scenes for the film.

The film is set to be Zhang’s biggest-budgeted film, with estimated production budget of $90m (RMB600m). Zhang Yimou and Zhang Weiping’s Beijing-based Beijing New Picture Film Co will be the main investor with a bank loan from Beijing-based China Minsheng Bank Corp., according to Zhang Weiping at the press conference.

Scheduled to start shooting in Jan 10, the film is adapted by well-known author Yen Geling’s novel of the same title, telling about a humanist story set in the Japanese-occupied Nanjing City in 1937. When a group of Japanese entered the Safety Zone asking for comfort women, thirteen prostitutes stood out, sacrificing their lives to save a group of convent girls.

Talking about the reason to recruit Bale to star in the project, Zhang Yimou said the main reason was that the story will center on the American priest and that he needed a talented actor to tackle the character, adding that Bale’s dedication to acting in all the diverse characters and genres had very much impressed him.

“In order to sell the film to all over the world, we need an actor who can sell the movie to more the 150 countries, or whose films reach an accumulated gross of $500m. And Mr Bale is qualified for both criteria,” said producer Zhang Weiping.

According to Zhang Weiping, the film has no investment involvement of Hollywood studios but international sales deals are almost settled in many territories in North America, Europe and in Asia Pacific. Zhang, however, did not disclose further details.

Apart from Bale, local actors Tong Dawei and Cao Kefan will be co-starring. The female roles will be given to new actresses, Zhang Yimou said.

Zhang will co-write the script with Yan Geling and Liu Heng, while costumes will be handled by William Chang (In the Mood for Love).

The film’s mainland China release date is scheduled at Dec 16, 2011