Batman star Christian Bale, in the midst of promoting a film he made in China that some critics have called propaganda, was physically stopped by government-backed guards from visiting a blind activist living under house arrest — with a CNN crew in tow to record the scuffle. CNN posted footage of the confrontation on its website Friday.
The run-in and publicity is likely to cause discomfort in China’s government-backed film industry, which hopes Bale’s movie The Flowers of War will be a creative success at home and abroad. The star’s actions are sure to focus attention on the plight of Chen Guangcheng, guarded around the clock by thugs who have blocked dozens of reporters and fellow activists trying to see him in the past. Bale was to leave China on Friday and his representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bale, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for last year’s The Fighter, traveled Thursday with a crew from CNN to the village in eastern China where Chen, the blind lawyer, lives with his family in complete isolation. They were stopped at the entrance to Dongshigu village in Shandong province by unidentified men. The video footage shows Bale asking to see Chen, with a CNN producer providing interpretation, but being ordered by one of the guards to leave. He then asked why he was unable to pass through. The guards responded by trying to grab or punch a small video camera Bale was carrying. “What I really wanted to do was to meet the man, shake his hand and say what an inspiration he is,” Bale was quoted as saying by CNN.
Chen’s case has been raised publicly by U.S. lawmakers and diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, all to no response from China.
CNN said Bale first learned of Chen from news reports when he was in China filming The Flowers of War, China’s official submission this year for best foreign language film Oscar. “Chen Guangcheng is a newsworthy figure … and as such it is in the interest of CNN’s global viewers to hear from him,” CNN said in a statement. “Mr. Bale reached out to CNN and invited us to join him on his journey to visit Chen.”
Chen, a self-taught lawyer who was blinded by a fever in infancy, angered authorities after documenting forced late-term abortions and sterilizations and other abuses by overzealous authorities trying to meet population control goals in his rural community. He was imprisoned for allegedly instigating an attack on government offices and organizing a group of people to disrupt traffic, charges his supporters say were fabricated. Although now officially free under the law, he has been confined to his home in the village eight hours’ drive from Beijing and subjected to periodic beatings and other abuse, activists say.
While Bale’s visit focuses new attention on Chen’s case, CNN’s role raises questions about activism and advocacy among reporters, said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong. “It made me instantly uncomfortable, wondering how it all came together. It raises questions about where the lines are drawn,” Bandurski said.
The incident also drew strong interest — most of it highly positive — on social networking sites such as Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Weibo. Having their star’s name pinging across the Internet in connection with such a politically sensitive subject puts promoters of The Flowers of War in a bind. The film opens in China on Friday and next week in the United States. Directed by the renowned Zhang Yimou, it is also the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, at $94 million, some of which came from the state-owned Bank of China. The movie centers on the 1937 sacking of the eastern city of Nanjing, a central event in China’s pre-revolutionary “century of humiliation” and has been described by some critics as hewing to official propaganda portraying Chinese as heroic victims and Japanese as one-dimensional cartoon villains.
While China has the world’s third-largest film industry — both in box office and output — it has made relatively little global impact. Story lines are often heavily influenced by the ruling Communist Party, whose culture commissars must approve scripts and have final say over whether a film gets released.