'Flowers of War' Director Zhang Yimou Reveals Steven Spielberg's Role in Casting Christian Bale

On the Set: "The Flowers of War"
New Pictures Film Co. Ltd.

"You learn a whole new method with each director. With Yimou, he truly loves what he does and had a great calmness about him," says Bale (on the set with the director). "He was really open to see what I wanted to try."

The Oscar-winning actor worked with the legendary director in his 1987 "Empire of the Sun" drama, which was filmed in China.

Director Steven Spielberg had a hand in Oscar winner Christian Bale's starring role in Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War, which premiered Sunday afternoon in Beijing.

The Hollywood Reporter previously reported Spielberg's role in a cover story with Bale and Zhang, However, Spielberg's director friend went into more detail on how the recommendation came about.

"I asked Steven Spielberg, who is a friend, to read the English script and recommend actors," Zhang said at a press conference following the premiere.

One of those suggestions was Bale, who had starred as a child actor in Spielberg's own turn directing in China, 1987's Empire of the Sun, also based on a novel set during Japan's World War II occupation of eastern China.

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Spielberg then encouraged Bale to work with Zhang. "He passed [Zhang] Yimou a letter to give to me, and it said, 'do it.'"

With a budget of $100 million, the film is the most expensive ever made in China, as much as last year's top domestic box office performer, Feng Xiaogang's Aftershock, grossed. Despite that, Zhang brushed off any suggestion that it put greater commercial pressure on him for the film to perform.

"Directors shouldn't think about these things. It prevents you from making a good movie," Zhang said. 

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The two-time Oscar-nominated director similarly dodged a question about whether Flowers was an attempt to finally win that trophy. "Winning an Oscar was not the goal. We only wanted to create good art and make a good film," he said. "I don't really understand the Oscar process much, so it's up to luck."

Zhang, who also directed the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games, is representing China again with Flowers as the country's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film award.

Bale plays John Miller, an American drifter who finds himself in the then-Chinese capital in 1937, just as the Nanjing Massacre -- which saw invading Japanese troops rape and murder thousands of Chinese civilians -- is getting underway. A group of young prostitutes take refuge in a church near the brothel where they work, and Miller, donning clerical robes, offers them protection from the invaders.

Flowers' female lead, newcomer Ni Ni, put herself out on a limb when asked if she felt a steamy scene between her character and Bale's was necessary, as in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution -- which had its sex scenes removed and earned a two-year industry ban for actress Tang Wei

"I really like Tang Wei and I think she's a wonderful actress, very beautiful, and I have learned a lot from her," Ni said.

The film is set to open wide in China on Dec. 16, followed by a limited U.S. release on Dec. 23.