BEIJING (AP) -- Christian Bale will star in Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou's new project about 13 young prostitutes who help save compatriots from Japanese troops rampaging Nanjing, the latest film exploring a World War II-era atrocity that stirs nationalism in China.
Bale, currently co-starring in the boxing drama "The Fighter," will portray an American priest in the movie, which is expected to start filming in Nanjing on Jan. 10, the Chinese director told reporters Wednesday.
The film is an adaptation of a Chinese-language novel by contemporary writer Yan Geling about 13 sex workers in Nanjing who volunteered to replace university students as escorts for invading Japanese soldiers. In the novel, the American priest presides over a Catholic church that shelters a group of prostitutes and young female students during the invasion.
Historians say the massacre, known in the West as the "Rape of Nanking," resulted in the slaughter of at least 150,000 civilians. China puts the number killed at 300,000, making it one of the worst atrocities of the WWII era.
Bale was picked because of his versatility and dedication to his roles, Zhang said, noting he was impressed by the research Bale did into the history of the massacre.
"I gave him the names of some books that he should read about the Nanjing massacre," the director said. "When I went to see him, I saw those books were lying open on his table, and I was very touched."
The $90 million production is slated for global release next December. It's being filmed with a mix of English and Chinese spoken.
The book's title translates roughly as "The 13 Women of Nanjing" but the film is going by the working English title of "Nanjing Heroes."
In making a movie about Japan's wartime atrocities in Nanjing, Zhang joins several others in exploring a sensitive topic that triggers nationalist sentiments in China. Other recently released films about the Japanese invasion include Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" and Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe."
Zhang said he hopes to bring a fresh approach to the topic in telling the story through a woman's perspective. He also hoped to enhance the foreign appeal by casting Bale, a Hollywood star who played Batman in "The Dark Knight."
"We've made many, many Nanjing movies ... but they are mostly like we're talking to ourselves. A lot of young people in Western countries might not know about it," Zhang said. "So I think that perhaps by doing it this way... could let maybe 100 or 200 million young audiences watch this film and maybe then they'll know what happened in Nanjing in 1937."
Zhang, whose credits include "Raise the Red Lantern" and "To Live," is of the first modern Chinese directors to make his name in the West.
His recent releases include "A Simple Noodle Story," an adaptation of the Coen brothers' 1984 movie "Blood Simple," and "Under the Hawthorn Tree," a love story set in China's decade-long ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution.
Bale's other films include "American Psycho" and "Empire of the Sun."