'It's the Best and Worst of Times for Chinese Cinema,' Says Director Lu Chuan

Lu Chuan

The in-demand director of "City of Life and Death" discuses his upcoming documentary project with Disney, and the exciting opportunities by myriad shortfalls of the current Chinese film business.

One of China’s most celebrated younger film directors, Lu Chuan hailed the rise of the film market in his home country, but said he was worried that there was not enough focus on content in the current frenzy.

Lu is best known overseas for Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, his 2004 thriller set among hunters on the Tibetan plateau, and City of Life and Death (2009), his elegiac black-and-white feature about the Japanese army’s massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing during WWII. He also scored critical plaudits with 2012’s The Last Supper.

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“For me, I think this is the best time for the Chinese film industry and it is also the worst time. It’s the best time because we got more money rolling into the industry, with businessmen coming every day into Beijing or Shanghai to get involved in the Chinese film industry,” Lu told The Hollywood Reporter at the Beijing International Film Festival, where he is serving as a judge on the competition jury.

The gold rush has created lots of opportunities for new talent and directors. But it’s led to a narrow focus on rapid box-office returns.

“Nobody cares about the content. Everybody wants to make movies quicker and quicker and the producer is going crazy. The market is growing bigger, but the content and quality is not better and better — it’s maybe even worse,” said Lu.

“You can’t overuse it. It is like a mine. You just dig and dig. Maybe sometime it will collapse,” he said.

China needs to improve the education of film crews and build studios which can create and design big movies, he added.

“In China, the market is huge and the money is huge, but nobody wants to spend time to do the basic work, to educate, to give the young Chinese worker training to create a movie like Gravity or Avatar,” said Lu.

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Another problem in the Chinese film business is a lack of independent critical voices, and he said many critics were also focused on box office.

The advent of big movies from China was putting pressure on local filmmakers to raise their game.

“As a local filmmaker, we need to make better movies to compete with Hollywood movies. But the negative side is Chinese audiences only like the Hollywood ‘muscle’ movies — big muscle and action,” he said.

Many of the more interesting U.S. filmmakers, such as Jim Jarmusch, don’t make it to China. Movies like 12 Years a Slave would have a terrific impact on Chinese audiences, but they were unlikely to see it, he elaborated.

Lu said he was currently in development on a major project, which he describes with a grin as a “commercial” contemporary film involving science fiction and action, but said he couldn’t reveal any more.

However, he was happy to talk about the work he has started on a nature movie with Disney called Born in China, produced by Tony To.

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“We spent one year to develop this project. I was curious why Tony To chose me. I am a feature director, not a documentary director. But he said I can be that — a director of a nature movie,” he said.

Five teams from Britain are involved, many of them from the BBC, and they will be sent to different locations in China to record wild animals and how the animals give birth to the next generation.

Currently one team is in Tibet, following the snow leopard. Another team is following the Tibetan antelope.

Lu said he is relishing his role as a judge at the Beijing International Film Festival this week.

“A film festival for me is a great chance to watch a lot of films in the theater. Also, it is good to make friends and meet foreign filmmakers. It is a gift for me. As a judge, I will try my best to be independent to give a stage to the good movies,” he said.