Beijing - Oscar winning actor Christian Bale defended on Sunday the upcoming Nanjing Massacre film The Flowers of War, by China's most famous director, Zhang Yimou, as more than an anti-Japanese propaganda film.
In the film, Bale plays an American drifter who becomes the unwitting protector of a group of Chinese schoolgirls and prostitutes trying to escape the Japanese army's brutal sacking of China's wartime capital.
The Nanjing Massacre, in which Japanese troops killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, is an episode from history that Japan has never acknowledged to China's satisfaction.
The 150-minute film, which opens to the public across China on December 16, is filled with battle scenes between Chinese and Japanese soldiers, and the brutal rape and murder of Chinese women by Japanese troops.
It is the latest in a string of films and TV series from China promoting national unity against an evil Japan, and comes as the Communist Party encourages the movie industry to raise the profile of the Asian nation abroad. But Bale, who told reporters at a post-sneak preview premiere press conference that he knew little of the history before starting work on the $90m picture, said the story was about more than Japan's past violence.
"It's far more of a movie about human beings and the nature of human beings' responses to crisis and how that can reduce people to the most animalistic behaviour and also raise them up to the most honourable behaviour," Bale said.
One of the first big Hollywood stars to play in a Chinese film and promote it, Bale, who won an Oscar this year for his role in The Fighter, said anyone who used the word propaganda to describe Zhang's film would be wrong.
"That would be a bit of a knee jerk reaction. If anybody had that response, I don't think they're looking closely enough at the movie," said Bale, whose Oscar has helped Zhang promote The Flowers of War as a 2012 Oscar hopeful.
The film will have a limited release in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco on December 23 to allow Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences members to decide whether or not China's submission for Best Foreign Language Picture deserves an Oscar nomination.
'Devoid of emotional impact'
No filmmaker from China has ever won an Oscar in a major category.
Zhang told reporters that an Oscar was not the motivation behind making the film based on a novel by Yan Geling, but that he wouldn't mind the honour.
"You can only do all the hard work yourself, but the rest depends on the gods. It's out of my hands," Zhang said.
Executive producer Bill Kong - who helped Zhang's 2002 ancient Chinese war film Hero gross more than $50m in the US alone - expressed faith his in the director's latest work.
"The Flowers of War is a good a picture as we can make in scale and scope. This will be one of the most successful Chinese-language films in recent years," Kong, told AFP.
Others helping shape China's film industry - where the box office take jumped more than 60% in 2010 to nearly $1.5bn - were not so sure.
Critic Raymond Zhou expressed doubt about the latest work from Zhang, whose Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou and Not One Less are considered Chinese film classics.
"For a subject of such emotional intensity, The Flowers of War is strangely devoid of emotional impact. It's more calculated than inspired," Zhou told AFP.
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