Flowers of War has a multitude of advantages over its rivals in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. Most obviously, it stars Christian Bale, who plays an American pretending to be a priest in order to survive the brutal 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking, China. Moreover, Bale’s character, and several others, speak English, making the film much more accessible to Academy voters. Lastly, it’s the official category submission from China, which just so happens to be the most promising unrealized market for blockbuster Hollywood films.
But the Oscars can also be very political, in every possible way. Including the literal sense. Last week, when Bale was roughed-up on camera while attempting to visit Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist who had been under house arrest in China for documenting his country’s population-control measures, the Dark Knight actor reminded western audiences of China’s less-than-stellar human rights record. If that wasn’t enough, Chinese authorities responded strongly to the scuffle, saying that Bale “should be embarrassed” by his actions. “He was not invited to create a story or shoot film in a certain village,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese government. “I think if you want to make up news in China, you will not be welcome here.”
Think voters might now be tempted to view Flowers of War in a different light? The Zhang Yimou film wasn’t the race’s favorite to begin with — Iran’s A Separation looks to be the frontrunner — but this public-relations controversy and China’s belligerent response could have a severe impact on the war film’s Oscar prospects. Hollywood’s interest in access to China’s restrictive market is now counterbalanced by a temptation to stick up for Batman. Didn’t the Chinese see the Hong Kong scene in The Dark Knight?
In the real world, who cares? China has broader interests than a golden statue. But make no mistake: China covets an Oscar that would legitimize its booming movie industry — Flowers of War, with a budget of nearly $100 million, is its biggest project ever — and despite two previous nominations in the category, the country has never won the trophy. Now with its spotlight film’s most visible star at odds with the government, the chances of a Chinese Oscar could be dead on arrival.