By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Zhang Yimou, one of China's best-known directors, is banking on heartthrob Christian Bale to help boost the country's chances of winning an Oscar, with his latest film on a tragic chapter in the nation's history.
"The Flowers of War," China's Academy Award entry for best foreign language film, centers around a mortician (Bale) who gets caught up in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and has to save a group of school girls from the clutches of the Japanese.
On the way he becomes involved with a high-class Chinese courtesan, finding both love and personal redemption.
The film, which hits Chinese screens on Friday followed a week later by a limited release in the United States, holds little back in its graphic depiction of the events of more than eight decades ago, a story everyone in China knows well.
To a Chinese audience the almost caricature-like Japanese soldiers -- who at one point erupt in glee at finding virgins to rape -- are part-and-parcel of what they are taught in school about an event which continues to poison Sino-Japan relations.
But the movie is also heavy on the nationalism and saturated with the patriotic pride typical of how the Chinese movie industry views such emotive parts of the nation's history.
Bale, though, said he though it unfair to view it as a propaganda film.
"It's a historical piece. I certainly never viewed it as that myself. I think 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," he told reporters.
"It's far more a movie about human beings and the nature of human beings' responses to crisis, and how that can reduce people to the most animalistic behavior but also raise them up to the most honorable behavior you could ever witness."
China says invading Japanese troops slaughtered 300,000 men, women and children in Nanjing, then known as Nanking. An Allied tribunal after World War Two put the death toll at about 142,000.
But some Japanese historians say the massacre has been exaggerated and some conservatives deny there was even a massacre.
Sino-Japanese ties have been overshadowed for years by what Beijing says has been Tokyo's refusal to admit to atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the country between 1931 and 1945.
"Obviously there are fewer people in the West who are familiar with the Rape of Nanking. Myself, I knew about it. I owned the book and had never read it. So I came to know far more about it," Bale added.
Billed as the first Chinese movie to star a major Western actor, the country has high hopes it will snag an Oscar.
Zhang downplayed that.
"We can work as hard as possible but really it's up to the gods. I really don't understand what the rules are for getting an Oscar," he said.
While Chinese movie moguls maybe hoping for an ascendance on the world's silver screens to match the country's rise on the global political and economic stage by matching a Hollywood face to the Chinese story, Bale said for him it was more about working with someone like Zhang.
"It seemed like a very natural thing to do. I was excited by the notion of making a Chinese movie, of making a movie with someone as masterful as Yimou. I'm quite myopic in my approach to the movies that I want to make."
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)