BEIJING — Christian Bale will star in Zhang Yimou‘s upcoming 600 million yuan ($90.2 million) Nanjing Heroes about the Nanjing Massacre, China’s most famous director said at a press conference Wednesday.
The budget is roughly equal to the budget of John Woo‘s Red Cliff, and approaches the total box office take of Aftershock, now China’s most successful domestically-produced film.
Zhang’s film will pull in the Hollywood effects team behind Saving Private Ryan and The Dark Night. Zhang and his longtime producer Zhang Weiping (no relation) of the New Picture Film Company announced Bale’s casting and the hiring of Joss Williams and Martin Asbury‘s Dark Side FX to a roomful of hundreds of Chinese reporters.
The Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese troops killed thousands of Chinese citizens in what was then the nation’s capital in 1937, has been the subject of several recent Chinese and co-produced films, each of which has included the character of John Rabe, a German businessman who helped save hundreds of Chinese refugees.
Bale will not play Rabe but instead play an American priest called John who helps a great number of Chinese escape certain death.
The script was written by Yan and Liu Heng, who wrote the novel upon which director Zhang’s early hit Ju Dou was based.
“I met Christian in America and was impressed with his serious book research for the role,” director Zhang said after playing a five-minute video mash up of clips from Bale’s Hollywood films, few of which have ever played theatrically in China.
The film will be shot about 40% in English and the rest in Mandarin Chinese, sources close to the project told The Hollywood Reporter. Zhang made no other cast or crew announcements.
“There are no foreign investors,” Zhang said, noting that it was too early to confirm what company might sell the film’s international rights.
Previously, Sony Pictures Classics distributed Zhang’s films in the U.S. market, but Sony does not appear to be involved at this time. Bill Kong, head of Hong Kong-based EDKO Films, emailed The Hollywood Reporter to say: “Edko will be involved with dealing with the foreign territory” rights for the film Kong referred to by an alternate working title, 13 Flowers of Nanjing.
Director Zhang’s highest-grossing film ever was 2002 period war film Hero starring Jet Li, which took in almost $54 million in the U.S. His new film comes at a time when China’s movie business is booming at home and dominant in parts of Asia, but receives little attention elsewhere
Zhang, whose last film, Under The Hawthorn Tree, it was announced last week, will have its European premiere in February in the Generation sidebar at the Berlin Film Festival. Zhang competed at Berlin this year with A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop and won the Golden Bear there in 1987 for Red Sorghum and the Alfred Bauer prize in 2002 for Hero.
Zhang was twice nominated for an Oscar. No Chinese film or director has ever won a major category Academy Award.
Asked if casting Bale was a move to raise Chinese cinema’s profile in the U.S. market — still 10 times bigger than China’s box office — director Zhang said “It’s the overall strategy for Chinese cinema to approach the world and broaden its influence but casting Bale was a coincidence because the script happened to have an English-speaking part in the lead.”
Zhang will begin shooting the film on January 10 in a Republican Era (1911-1949) replica church built near Nanjing.
In 2008, a slew of Nanjing-themed films came out in China, including Lu Chuan‘s City of Life and Death, from the China Film Group, and German director Florian Gallenberger‘s John Rabe, a co-production with Huayi Brothers Media.