The press conference announcement in Beijing by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou that Christian Bale will star in his Chinese period film The 13 Flowers of Nanjing is the latest piece of evidence that Bale uses his signature role as Batman as a beachhead that allows him to stretch, better than any actor who has inhabited a superhero movie role (with the possible exception of his The Prestige costar Hugh Jackman). I always felt that Michael Keaton could have better exploited his Batman perch as a way to enable good projects, but he seemed uncomfortable being defined by the role and left after two films. Keaton shows up now and then and delivers the occasional strong performance, but any ability to get movies made just by his presence vanished after his exit. Val Kilmer never got the chance to exploit the perch after replacing Keaton for one appearance in 1995’s Batman Forever, and George Clooney has spent more time than anything publicly apologizing for his turn in spandex in 1997’s Batman & Robin. Managing an acting career around iconic franchise characters is tricky stuff. Harrison Ford’s turns in Star Wars and Indiana Jones made him a top-dollar star, but it also shackled him into mostly playing stoic hero roles. Batman doesn’t seem to have created any such limitations on Bale, who made Harsh Times, The New World, Rescue Dawn, The Prestige and 3:10 to Yuma between between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He followed the latter film with Terminator Salvation, Public Enemies, and The Fighter. He has a real Oscar chance for his portrayal as the crack-addicted former fighter Dicky Eklund. Bale returns next year for The Dark Knight Rises, and it will be interesting to see if he bails on his Batman stronghold after that.
In 13 Flowers of Nanjing, Bale will play an American in Nanjing, China in 1937 during the Sino-Japanese war, where refugees flock to find sanctuary from the violent invasion in a church compound. The picture will begin production January 10, 2011, in both Chinese and English dialogue. Yimou is reuniting with producer Bill Kong and exec producer David Linde. They previously worked together on Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers as well as Hero. Linde’s relationship with Kong goes back to the Ang Lee-directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Kong is producing with Zhang Weiping. New Pictures and Edko Films Limited are the production companies.