Q&A: Lu Chuan

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Illustration by Chris Morris
 
Considered one of the most talented directors of China's post-sixth generation, Lu Chuan is renown for his stark, masculine film language and elemental vision of nature and humanity, demonstrated in "Missing Gun" and poaching drama "Kekexili." Now, his "Nanjing Nanjing" (aka "City of Life and Death") uses extraordinary black and white images to tell a nuanced and humane tale, while still depicting the brutal atrocities committed during the 1938 Japanese siege of China's former capital, Nanjing, events often referred to as the "Nanking Massacre." Reactions to the film have been little short of extreme. In China it unleashed a wave of patriotic fury and public outcry – though it proved a box office success. Lu received death threats and has been disowned by sectors of the film industry. That did not make its international career any easier. The film was surprisingly passed over by both Cannes and Venice, omissions that are to the gain of Toronto and San Sebastian, where it next plays in competition. THR's Asia Editor Patrick Frater talks to Lu about his bruising year, the limits of tolerance in China and the Chinese film industry.

The Hollywood Reporter: In a previous interview with this paper before it was released, you said you made this film in order to open a window for more discourse on either side. In China the discussion has bordered on the hysterical. You received death threats and calls for your dismemberment. Were you surprised by the reactions?

Lu Chuan: I was surprised. Really surprised. Before the Chinese release (in late April) I expected it to be well accepted. In fact, people were divided into two camps. There were those who supported it and those who hated the movie and hated me. There were calls for the film to be deleted from the history of Chinese cinema. This is still going on. We were not allowed to be nominated at (the) Huabiao awards (organized by the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television.) Initially, we were nominated in many categories, then, a week before the event, we were told that our nominations had been canceled. I'm no longer surprised and am completely at peace with the results (of the awards). In fact I'm grateful that we were allowed to release the film at all.

THR: Were you in real physical danger from these threats?

Lu: I avoided some big public places, certain bars. In the last few months I've spent more time at home, with my family and with my team.

THR: How do you interpret the extreme reactions? Are movie audiences in China unable to accept films that have anything good to say about Japanese people? Are Chinese people simply racist?

Lu: Many audiences received a very text-book education and may not be as open as me. I did a lot of research and the truth is not as simple as in the (Chinese) text books. Many were written by scholars with narrow minds. The truth in fact is very simple; Japanese people are also human beings. I had taken it for granted that these days we all see ourselves as equals, that we all see each other as humans. Apparently not.

THR: Did the controversy help the film's boxoffice?

Lu: I think the majority of those who went to see it supported it. But nationalistic feelings in China run very deep.

THR: You were also helped by Li Changchun, head of the Communist Party's propaganda department, who battled within the Film Bureau for its release. The film was scheduled to be shown next month as one of 10 celebrating China's 60th anniversary. How come?

Lu: The leaders couldn't give me public support, but did so behind the scenes. From that I conclude that China is opening up, but is not yet open.

THR: How has reaction within the film industry been?

Lu: Most actors and actresses love the film. Over 90%. Producers too have supported it. Many said they love the movie and sent me many messages. Directors have been completely different. Most say they hate the movie. Only Hong Kong's Peter Chan Ho-sun has really stood up and said he loves the film and that it is an important movie. Unfortunately, he has ended up quarreling with some mainland directors.

THR: Was the film made more for international audiences perhaps? To help educate international audiences of the atrocities that China suffered in the Sino-Japanese War and yet which are largely ignored by Western public – and filmmakers – alike?

Lu: I don't know how the festival juries will vote. But I certainly hope that international audiences will approach it without prejudice. As to education, I'm not sure. We need to find the perfect distributor for the U.S. We need a company that attracts and engages the public with this movie.

THR: What's next? Apart from an eight-minute documentary for the Shanghai 2010 World Expo?

Lu: I have not decided. I'm looking at several scripts which include a love story, a thriller, a war movie and a musical – I want to do something completely different. Last month I was invited by my agent to travel to the U.S. to do some private screenings and some meetings in Hollywood. But I'm sure that 99% did not see my movie. If I were ever to work in Hollywood, I'd want to make a really good English-language movie. I'd want to take my time and get it right. Meantime, I'll be fascinated to discover the audience reactions in Toronto.

VITAL STATS:

Nationality: Chinese
Born: Feb. 8, 1971
Selected filmography: "Nanjing! Nanjing!" (2009), "Kekexili" (2004), "The Missing Gun" (2002)
Notable awards: Berlinale Don Quixote Award special mention and Tokyo International Film Festival special jury prize for "Kekexili"
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