Director Lu Chuan Retells China's History in 'The Last Supper' (Q&A)

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The "City of Life and Death" filmmaker tells THR that his latest movie depicts "the past as a concrete metaphor of the present."

Lu Chuan presented his first film at Venice, received the top prize at Taiwan’s Golden Horses with his second, and won the Golden Shell award at San Sebastian with his third. It’s a track record suggesting a filmmaker on the ascent – and the films themselves are ample proof of an increasing audacity in his choice of topic and aesthetics, as he moves from an urban thriller (The Missing Gun, 2002) to a thriller set among hunters on the Tibetan plateau (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, 2004) to a black-and-white feature about the Japanese army’s massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing during the second world war (City of Life and Death, 2009).

And then came The Last Supper. Revolving around Liu Bang (played by Liu Ye, star of City of Life and Death), the first emperor of China’s Han Dynasty, it’s a non-linear account of how an uncultured brute grabs power, revels in its excess, grows paranoid and annihilates anyone who looks like a threat (such as the general Han Xin, played by Chang Chen from Red Cliff and the upcoming The Grandmaster). The film was supposed to be released in July, but censors pulled it off the schedule for what Lu and his producers described as “non-commercial reasons;" later, the director talked about how officials thought The Last Supper is actually a thinly-veiled metaphor of the excesses of Mao Zedong, who launched many a purge during his 26-year rule to consolidate his control of the country.

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The film premiered at Toronto in September, and was finally released in China at the end of November – in the very same week that Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942, an epic about a famine in the Chinese province of Henan during the second world war. While the film secured warm reviews at festivals, local audiences were less receptive, with the film just breaking the 100-million yuan mark during its month-long run. It was a tiring end to a patience-testing project – but a mission that needs to be done to illustrate the roots of traditional power relationships in China, Lu – who runs his own company Chuan Films, while repped by the Creative Artists Agency – told The Hollywood Reporter in Hong Kong prior to the film’s release in the city on Jan. 3

The Hollywood Reporter: What do you think about the significance of revisiting history through film these days?

Lu Chuan: Historical dramas are all about contemplating what lies before us, now, by looking at the past. But that doesn’t mean we need to have characters which are equivalents [of real historical figures in the modern times]. Historical films should find some meaning in the history they are depicting, and allow people today to look at some universal truth when they watch those films. I have a simple example: I had recently hosted a special screening for top-ranking executives of a listed company in Shenzhen. Afterwards, they were saying, ‘Wow, what your film was telling was a story of how a team in the creative industries work’. Well, it’s not exactly what I have in mind -- but, yes, it’s about how the Chinese handle power, and how there was still something primeval which defines interpersonal relationships.

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THR: One of the crucial scenes in your film feature an official berating court scribes for twisting reality in recording things for the historical annals, and how this would affect future generations. Why are you interested in this issue?

Chuan: We’ve always talked about how rulers toy with the power they have. Money may not be that important to them anymore as the lands are already theirs. What’s most important is their power to write history – or, to be exact, how they could rewrite it. I think what makes a good leader is whether you could handle this process in a fair manner – this is something rulers should think about.

THR: What do you think about past representations of history in films?

Chuan: There’s a lot of historical films being made today – not just about Liu Bang, but also like Han Dynasty’s Emperor Wu [which led China through decades of prosperity]. But I feel most of these stories are about praising their achievements, like hagiographies. But they never really start from the sovereigns’ psyches, to look at whether they were corrupted and eaten up by their lust for power and desire for material excess. These films never take a human approach towards these depictions; they are always stories about success, and they are not critical about things. Rather, they simply encourage others to study how they succeeded.

And I think the general atmosphere actually encourages people to glorify things, to be anti-intellectual. People who could really employ reason to think about history are very few on the ground – because Chinese society these days doesn’t need such independent thinking. Those who do would be suppressed, and this is what led to how things are today.

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THR: Is this what you had experienced when you made City of Life and Death, when nationalists denounce you for featuring a conscientious Japanese soldier emerging from the massacres with anguish and guilt?

Chuan: Oh, I was called a traitor and all sorts, yes. A lot of people who were ranting against me actually hadn’t seen the film – they were just incited by others to come out and give me a hard time. I haven’t changed the way I approach history in my films – you can just have a look at The Last Supper and you will know. It’s not like I am sticking to my guns because I want to confront their haranguing – it’s just that I think the way history is taught has to change. Or else our society will forever be mired in this unenlightened, extreme nationalist zeal – and to struggle in it.

THR: But isn’t it difficult today to make films critical to the status quo?

Chuan: It’s quite difficult. What you can see is how a lot of sharp directors have fallen silent these days. These days political edges are washed under by commercial concerns – to a lot of people, like investors, films are just about revenue and expenses. So this is why all these successful [box office] numbers led people to such elation – because this is the kind of success which triumphs over everything, as this is also how shape audiences’ desire in securing simple entertainment without having to do too much thinking on their part. It’s exactly at such times that creative types like us should work to prevent films tackling serious topics to disappear completely from China’s mainstream market.

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THR: Your graduate thesis was titled “The Author in the System” – seemingly something you have examined and experienced throughout your career, and an issue you have placed on screen in The Last Supper.

Chuan: In China, there are two ways of becoming a filmmaker – either you conduct your work within the establishment, or you stay out of it and do underground films. The problem with the latter is that your work will not be able to meet audiences properly. Films, to me, are only complete when you can engage in an interactive relationship with viewers, whether they are a hit with them or not. From the very beginning, I have decided that I am to be an author working within the system.

In fact, the concept of a system might not be that scary -- its presence sometimes actually give you a drive to do certain things! In Hong Kong, you don’t have systematic constraints such as censorship [of politically sensitive content] -- and in return, you have fewer films which seek to contemplate about history and society. That’s because it’s too free here: sometimes this very delicate, complex dance we are engaged in could yield interesting things. And as far as I’m concerned, the establishment exists as an objective fact; I support calls for reforms, such as the introduction of a film classification system, but rather than just criticizing it, maybe we should make films which could stand the test of viewers and professional critics.

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THR: But how do you cope with a system with rules which are not set in stone and seemingly always in flux?

Chuan: The rules are not solid because China is still ruled by men, and not by law. Things are always changing – it’s just like how people said a film like The Last Supper, with the issues it talks about, will never get past the censors. But it did. And there were other examples [of films criticizing the ruling elite] – Let the Bullets Fly cleared the censors as well. Looking back, the system here has led to a lot of edgy films coming out into the open. So I don’t think that the intervention of the system would invariably transform films into trash… you can’t blame the authorities for failures in the industry or the flawed content of certain films.

I see the challenge of working within the system as being about battling with the unpredictable. That’s why at the end of the day I decided against thinking too much of adapting to the rules -- because once you did that, things would have changed. You wouldn’t be able to catch up!

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THR: How much has your views changed since the time you said, at the Shanghai Film Festival in June, that you didn’t understand why censors disagreed with certain parts of The Last Supper?

Chuan: I think what they feared most is how I want to use the past as a concrete metaphor of the present -- that this character will be representing this very national leader and so on. This will be what they deem as a “danger”. I can’t do anything about it as I’ve already finished my film and people can say whatever they want or think about the film. But what I wanted to say with the film is how history repeats itself all the time, and as we move forward people become more critical of what’s happening. I can say I understand what their worries are.

But I also have to say I can’t really grasp with their way of thinking -- we are now in times of reforms and openness, so we should have different ways of examining the past.

So as we were moving along in post-production we were changing things. Their objections were mostly on certain lines spoken by Daniel Wu [whose character’s proclamation of not wanting people “to sing the same song” was edited out]. Things which would make people think of episodes in modern history, they would say, “Can you please make changes to that?” We and the censors are always discussing how we could guarantee the film to secure a release and not generate too much of a controversy. We will listen what they have to say, and I think the leaders of the Film Bureau are not too bad: they’re actually willing to communicate with you and to protect your films.