Helmer recalls 'Bitter's' sweet journey


TORONTO -- It was a surprise to Roger Spottiswoode. The Canadian director went to China in 2005 to prep a 1930s period drama, "The Bitter Sea," only to discover a surprising lack of old buildings for location shooting.

"Finding the past in China is extremely difficult because the cultural revolution destroyed everything that was old or honorable and venerable," Spottiswoode says.

Even restored architecture in China was of little use to him as most is geared to tourism.

"On the way to Tibet, we found a couple of old towns that were rebuilt as tourist attractions. They're old but look rather new. They're Disneyland-ish," he says.

To find suitable locations for his three-month shoot earlier this year, Spottiswoode took his 300-strong crew to far-flung locations like the spectacular Gobi desert, or Liancheng in the remote Gansu province.

The Jonathan Rhys Meyer starrer about a real-life British journalist who in 1938 attempted to save a group of schoolchildren after witnessing the Nanjing Massacre, was shot partly in the shadow of Beijing's Forbidden City. Not the original home to Chinese Emperors, mind you, but a life-size reproduction of the Forbidden City at the Hengdian World Studios complex in eastern China.

The $15 million independent film is essentially a Chinese film -- the local production-distribution outfit Qixinran helped produce it with key financing from China, Germany and Australia and a presale to Sony Pictures Classics for the North American rights.

Chinese stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, and Radha Mitchell in the role of an American nurse, round out the cast. James MacManus and Jane Hawksley penned the historical drama.

Spottiswoode had the benefit of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers") at his side as he shot across wide swathes of China.

He has particular praise for the many local Chinese hired for the shoot. They dutifully trudged on and off set every day, even when they were late getting paid early on in preproduction.

"No Western crew would have done that," Spottiswoode says. "(The Chinese) would work pretty much any hours, as long as you put them in hotels and fed them."

Also crucial to the Chinese shoot were skilled translators.

"If you don't speak a word of the language, and you're speaking to heads of departments who are English, and they have Chinese working for them who don't speak English, it can get very complicated," Spottiswoode says.

The Canadian director lauds Sony Pictures Classics for distributing a Chinese film set against the backdrop of wartime atrocities by Japanese soldiers, especially as its parent is Tokyo-based Sony.

"That's a gutsy act," Spottiswoode says. "It's not a war film, but the war drives the story."