December 09, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

He’s the reigning Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner, and next year Christian Bale may conquer a new Academy Award category: Best Foreign Language Film. Bale stars in China’s official Oscar entry, The Flowers of War, a historical drama from director Zhang Yimou in which Bale plays an American man who masquerades as a priest in an attempt to protect 26 Chinese women and girls from being raped by invading Japanese military forces in the 1930s. Though the film contains the type of nail-biting fight scenes for which Zhang (House of Flying Daggers) is known, Bale says they feel quite different from his work in Batman films. ”Batman is a guy who’s out there with a purpose and plan; he’s not surprised by occurrences. Things tend to go his way,” says the actor, whose Flowers of War character at one point hides in a vat of flour to escape the Japanese. ”With this, as it should be with a character who’s not running around dressed as a bat, it’s a mess. This guy is caught by surprise. He’s not a trained fighter. I liked that messiness and chaos.” Bale was also impressed with his costars, particularly the young women who portray traumatized schoolchildren. ”The girls had to be able to cry,” says Zhang, who put his amateur actors through a long audition process. ”When Christian saw them cry, his heart was almost breaking: ‘How can these girls cry so much?’ We said, ‘Don’t worry, they’ve done this a million times.”’ In fact, Bale says his costars reminded him a bit of himself as a boy. ”The thing I found so funny is that a lot of them were 13, and I did a movie when I was 13,” he says, referring to 1987’s Empire of the Sun. ”A lot of them said, ‘I don’t want to do this ever again.’ And I was like, ‘All right, you watch. Because that’s exactly what I said when I was 13.’ But it’s pretty addictive.”

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