The Flowers Of War director tells John Hazelton about balancing the Eastern and Western elements of one of China’s biggest-ever productions.

It seems fitting that internationally acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou first came across Geling Yan’s novel 13 Flowers Of Nanjing while he was preparing to mastermind the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Flowers Of War, Zhang’s epic film version of the book, turned into a $100m production — one of the biggest ever mounted in China — and was itself something of a meeting of nations.

Set against the backdrop of the 1937 Nanjing massacre, the novel tells the story of rough-hewn American John Miller, a group of Chinese schoolgirls (one of whom narrates the action) and 13 local prostitutes who together take refuge from the Japanese invaders of China’s then capital in a Christian cathedral.

While plenty of Chinese films and TV shows have been made about the Nanjing massacre, Zhang says (through a translator) that he found this fictional story “truly unique, because it takes the perspective of a 13-year-old girl”. He snapped up the rights to the novel before immersing himself in his Olympics work.

When the Games were over Zhang, renowned for a string of international award winners including Red Sorghum, Raise The Red Lantern, To Live and Not One Less, returned to what ended up being a marathon four-year preparation period.

He worked with screenwriter Liu Heng — who previously wrote Zhang’s The Story Of Qui Ju and Ju Dou — to fine-tune a script with 40% of its dialogue in English and the rest in Mandarin.

Casting Chinese actors and actresses — some, like female lead Ni Ni, making their film debuts — was time consuming because the performers had to speak some English and be fluent in the Nanjing dialect.

For help in finding a Hollywood actor to play John Miller — and for an opinion on the project’s viability outside China — Zhang and executive producer Bill Kong turned to David Linde, the former Universal Pictures chairman then in the process of putting together his new venture Lava Bear (which is not an investor in Flowers).

Together with Los Angeles-based Chaoying Deng, Linde became an executive producer. “We spent a lot of time talking about actors,” Linde says. “Yimou was focused on getting a great actor. There was, as there is with any movie, a discussion about how whatever actor was cast would affect the commerciality of the movie. But that was never the driving force.”

On the recommendation of his executive producers – and his friend Steven Spielberg – Zhang began looking at the work of The Dark Knight and The Fighter star Christian Bale.

‘A lot of directors fall into the trap of bringing two cultures together on a very superficial level’

Zhang Yimou

“I realised Christian is extremely flexible because he’s played so many different roles,” says Zhang. “And when I met him, I realised he is extremely professional. When he read the script he made a lot of suggestions about how to make the character feel real, flesh and bones. And that kind of work continued throughout the whole shoot.”

With Bale cast and funding secured from Chinese sources by producer Zhang Weiping — Zhang Yimou’s regular collaborator since 1997 — through his Beijing New Picture Film Co, the film’s five-month shoot began in January 2011.

Believing that “if you make a movie about a certain place you should go to that place”, Zhang chose to shoot on sets specially constructed in Nanjing.

A seven-day working week — apparently standard in the non-unionised Chinese industry — was not a particular challenge for the 60-year-old director. And, in spite of the fact Zhang speaks only Mandarin, neither was working with an international crew including UK special-effects consultant Joss Williams and Japanese production designer Yohei Taneda, as well as frequent Zhang collaborators cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, sound designer Tao Jing and film editor Meng Peicong.

What was a challenge was working around the schedule of a busy Hollywood actor. “Christian only had two months on the set,” Zhang reports, “so we had to shoot all his dialogue first. Then, after he left, we shot the rest of the actors and actresses. But the emotions had to match perfectly so I had to know exactly how the emotion escalated. I had to be very precise.”

Working with a Western star

Scheduling aside, Zhang says, the experience of working for the first time with a major Western actor was “really precious. In the past, foreign actors in Chinese movies have been almost like beautiful vases — pleasant to look at but without depth. For me it was a challenge to have Christian’s performance combine very organically with those of the Chinese actors.”

Shooting finished in late June and, thanks to the fact Zhang and Meng had been editing in the evenings throughout production, a final cut was ready less than three weeks later. By late September, the film was completed and ready to be submitted as China’s contender for the foreign-language film Oscar (for which three of Zhang’s previous films have been nominated).

Linde was called into action again when the time came to start presenting the film to potential distributors, a process which began with the screening of a 30-minute promo reel at Toronto last September.

The producers were keen for the film to be released in the US before the end of 2011 and in conjunction with the Chinese release, says Linde, and screening the promo reel was a way to “get the distributors thinking about if and how they could release the film at the end of the year. In addition, it allowed us to introduce the film to key press around the world, in advance of the release.”

By early November a US distribution deal was signed with Wrekin Hill, which gave the film a three-city awards-qualifying run in late December and is planning a platform release early in 2012, with a marketing push aimed at both the traditional audience for specialty films and the Chinese-American community.

The film was released in China — after briefly becoming the focus of a dispute between distributors and cinemas over ticket prices and box-office shares — on December 16, the day after it was nominated in this year’s foreign-language film Golden Globe category.

FilmNation is handling international and is set to start its sales push in the run up to February’s Berlin festival, where the film will screen out of competition.

In the long term, Flowers could provide some pointers for the makers of future film collaborations that mix Eastern and Western elements in an attempt to appeal to audiences in both China and the rest of the world.

Zhang suggests the key to such collaborations is an organic mix of elements. “You have to have a script that actually needs those kind of East-meets-West elements,” he says. “The elements have to make sense in order for a collaboration like this to be successful. A lot of directors fall into the trap of bringing two cultures together on a very superficial level.”

Zhang also hints that after making The Flowers Of War he might be more open to directing a non-Chinese project.

“I will probably still focus on the Chinese market and making Chinese movies,” he says, “but I will not refuse if a good script from the West or Hollywood comes along.”