China turns on the star of its own prestige movie

China turns on the star of its own prestige movie

Chinese cultural authorities may have thought they pulled off a coup by getting Christian Bale, the Dark Knight himself, to star in Zhang Yimou’s epic retelling of the rape of Nanking, the Flowers of War, China’s Oscar entry for best foreign-language film. But they got more then they bargained for when the notoriously short-tempered British actor,* in the country for the film premiere, attempted to pay a visit — along with a CNN crew — to human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who has been under house at his home in Shandong province. In case you missed the story, here’s what happened

A foreign ministry spokesman fired back at Bale today: 

"If anyone should be embarrassed it’s the relevant actor, not the Chinese side," Liu told a daily news briefing, in the country’s first reaction to Bale’s actions.

"What I understand is that the actor was invited by the director Zhang Yimou to attend the movie premiere. He was not invited to any village in Shandong to create news or make a film," he added.

"If he wants to create news, I don’t think that would be welcomed by China."

Chen, a blind self-taught lawyer, has been under house arrest since his release from prison last year, having accused authorities of carrying out forced abortions on villagers in rural China. 

It’s all well and good for Bale — who got his first big break playing an orphan in wartime China in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun — to bring publicity to this issue. If nothing else, it will make China’s international promotion of the new film, in which Bale plays a priest who protects a group of Chinese women from the invading Japanese, a little more awkward. (U.S. critics are mostly panning the film as a "gauzy tearjerker.") Though, given his political beliefs, one wonders why be got involved in this project in the first place. 

The person I’m actually interested in hearing from is Zhang Yimou, China’s most famous film director. Zhang is known globally for martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the arthouse hit Raise the Red Lantern, and for directing the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t address the controversy in an interview posted today with the New York Times‘ Larry Rohter. 

Though he attended film school with Ai Weiwei, Zhang has never been a political artist, which is perfectly legitimate. But given his affiliation with state-sponsored prestige projects like the Olympics and Flowers of War, on which he acknowledges he received substantial official support, he’s running the risk of being dismissed internationally as a propagandist. Here’s a description from the L.A. Times of the film’s Beijing premier:

Director Zhang Yimou’s epic new film "The Flowers of War" doesn’t open in the United States until Dec. 23, but the movie, starring Christian Bale and set amid the 1930s Japanese occupation of the Chinese city of Nanjing, premiered Sunday in the People’s Political Consultative Conference, an imposing government building in central Beijing.

After the screening came an hourlong event in which the film’s cast appeared onstage in costume and made short speeches celebrating the film’s achievements. The band of actors that played the Chinese soldiers held their prop rifles high in the air and shouted “Chinese soldiers!” eliciting a smattering of applause from the mostly native crowd.  

In the Times interview Zhang says he’d like to make a film about the Cultural Revolution, during which he was sent to the countryside to work on a collective farm as a child. " Of course this is a very sensitive topic, but I am hoping that before I pass on I can actually make these movies," he says. This seems to be an acknowledgement that there are some subjects he’d like to tackle, but can’t in today’s political climate. That’s unfortunate for a director of Zhang’s talent, but as long as he continues to prosper by making state-sponsored kitsch, it’s a little hard to take him seriously.

*Correction: This post originally stated that Christian Bale is Australian. He is British.