Thursday, December 29, 2011

'Batman' begins with a 'spam'

When a "Christian Bale" started emailing me in late November, I ignored him as most people probably would. Why would a Hollywood star contact me out of blue to discuss "an idea"?

"Shall I call Batman back at the number he gave me?" I asked friends sarcastically as they laughed.

Then came the phone call on December 6.

"Hi Steven, it's Christian Bale," said a soft-spoken British-accented voice. "I tried to email you."

As I listened in disbelief, Bale -- who said he would be in Beijing soon to promote his latest movie -- revealed his idea: visiting Chen Guangcheng, a prominent blind Chinese activist under illegal house arrest for more than a year.

Having followed Chen's plight for months, Bale said he felt inspired by the man and was abhorred by news reports on how local authorities had harassed and tortured him and his family. When he realized nobody he talked to in the United States knew anything about Chen, Bale wanted to pay him a personal visit to shed a spotlight on the activist.

Bale got my name after reading a story I wrote in February recounting my team's dangerous encounter with rock-hurling guards who thwarted our attempt to visit Chen. When he didn't hear back from me, Bale found my office number and called.

“Would you be interested in joining me on the trip to see Chen?” he asked.

I told him it was an intriguing idea but I needed to talk to my colleagues first. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, we both agreed to keep it just between us.

The timing for a visit was certainly right: A Chen family friend had just told me about the activist's slightly improved condition amid growing domestic and international pressure, while a high-level U.S. Congressional panel had just held hearing on his case.

There was a lot of interest in getting fresh first-hand reporting on Chen and I was planning another trip to try to visit him. Bale's idea would definitely make a great unique angle.

I discussed the potential trip with my correspondent, who echoed my opinion on its newsworthiness. We agreed the focus should be the actor's effort and journey to meet an unlikely personal hero in confinement.

I called Bale back two days later to confirm our interest and we decided to talk about the details in person.

On December 11, several hours before he walked down the red carpet at a lavish premiere thrown by the Chinese producers of "The Flowers of War," I met Bale in his hotel room, erasing the last bit of lingering doubt about his identity. I admitted I had to dig up his bio online when I first received his call, as his natural British accent -- in contrast to the American English he spoke in most movies -- threw me off.

“So that's your little investigative journalism,” he quipped.

As we chatted, I was impressed by Bale's deep knowledge on Chen -- from his legal advocacy on behalf forced-abortion victims and his subsequent imprisonment, to the dire conditions of detention the activist described himself in a smuggled video. Bale also kept tabs on all the recent developments, including reports on violent attacks against Chen's supporters who tried to visit him.

Although he remained soft-spoken, Bale's underlying conviction and passion surfaced when he emphasized he would be drawn to a case like Chen’s even without being in China. The potential consequence of not being allowed back in China -- just as “Flowers” was selected as the country’s official entry into next year’s Oscars -- wouldn't deter him, either.

"Anyone is going to recognize this is horrendous the way this man has been treated," he said. "To say I'd rather look the other way and continue making movies just completely trashes what, at its most important, movies can be. It's got to be about the individual and have a humanitarian aspect to it -- so that's why I go."

He finalized the date for the trip, leaving his U.S.-based representatives and fellow Chinese filmmakers completely in the dark.

"I just told them I need to stay two extra days to do some personal stuff," he said.

The following day, I proposed a reporting trip to follow Bale to a few senior editors and shared my thoughts on the story with them.

They expressed concern over our plan to travel with Bale in the same car, saying the arrangement may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. I explained it was mainly for safety reasons based on our experience in February -- more vehicles would slow us down and thus make us more vulnerable if a quick getaway became necessary. Also, the long drive would allow us to interview him on camera in the car. (Bale shared the cost of transportation.)

The go-ahead came the day before our scheduled departure.

During our eight-hour drive from Beijing to Dongshigu Village on December 15, we talked with Bale about his movies, life and time in China in the rather cramped car, but one topic he returned to often was Chen's freedom -- a cause he said he would continue to champion after returning to the States.

When we entered Chen's neighboring village and all seemed clear, Bale brightened up and, for a brief moment, everyone savored the prospect of actually meeting the activist.

Then, our car made one last turn onto that narrow path leading to Chen’s house. The sight of four burly guards manning an impromptu checkpoint suddenly appeared and the rest, as they say, is history.

December 16, 2011: 'Batman' star Bale punched, stopped from visiting blind Chinese activist -

February 16, 2011: Difficult journey to visit a Chinese human rights lawyer -