Lu Chuan brings history to 'Life and Death'

Film seeks to show new side of bloody event

BEIJING -- "City of Life and Death," the latest movie about the 1937 Nanjing massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops, will premiere in Beijing on April 16 before embarking on a tour of China where it will eventually screen with 1,200 prints, director Lu Chuan told The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday.

In a country with only 4,000 screens, that's huge exposure for a director releasing just his third film. Then again, his is a subject about which nearly every Chinese is taught from their very first days at school.

Lu's last film, "Kekexili" -- about antelope poachers in western China -- was distributed on 60 prints in 2004 but "was like a nuclear bomb" when it came to its influence in China (It won multiple Asian film awards and a nomination at Sundance). "I just don't know what will happen with 'Nanjing! Nanjing!" he said, referring to his $12 million film by its Chinese title.

Sleepless for several months, Lu said he's worried about the reaction of the audience, the censors and the media. His Nokia mobile rings five times in an hour. He is talking with overseas film distributors and has submitted the film to the Festival de Cannes -- but first he must face the reaction at home.

Recent screenings for Chinese critics, journalists and moviemakers have elicited two strong reactions. One group is moved to share his own viewpoint, that "war makes everybody crazy. It not only tortures the defeated but ruins the victor."

The other group is very angry. "How dare you portray Japanese soldiers as human beings?" they ask. "They want to tear me to pieces," Lu said. "The angry ones -- their voices are louder."

From under his black baseball cap, Lu said he's been on an "interesting journey."

"You grow up here, breathe the air here, and you have no choice but to believe everything you hear," Lu said. As friends sent him research materials from Japan, Taiwan and the U.S., his eyes opened.

"Everybody knows the Nanjing Massacre, but step by step I found there were no Chinese people in the history, that there was something missing," he said. "Our history tells us that the Chinese did not fight back, but there's more and more evidence that that's totally wrong."

Lu said that China's Nationalist troops, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fought with all their might but failed against the better trained and better equipped Japanese troops. "Their soldiers were well educated, so we were defeated. But it doesn't mean we didn't fight back," Lu said, some 72 years after the event. "This was kind of a big secret for me."

He believes most Chinese have "recovered" from the second Sino-Japanese War (as WWII is known here), saying the conflict lingers for some of his countrymen.

"Our education has made the hatred still exist in their hearts," he said, a fact of life he calls "right" because "the Japanese people have not apologized for what they did."

Lu went to Tokyo searching for actors to play soldiers, officers and prostitutes, interviewing 70 in three days. Some questioned his motives. "Do you want to raise the hatred again? Do you want to cause a war between China and Japan?" they asked. He finally cast about 50 Japanese from whom he felt -- he chooses his words carefully -- "separated" at the start of the film's eight-month shoot.

Slowly, he showed them a lot of old documentary footage from the Japanese military. Some were afraid for their future, he said. "I encouraged them, told them they are doing something right because it's a true story. By the end, we were all friends. They knew we were making something special."

Lu is now mulling what might be next. Although he placed a thriller script at the recent Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum, Lu is contemplating something completely different after seeing Disney's "High School Musical."

"For four years, my heart was in darkness," he said. "It was a strange feeling for me to see this movie. I thought: 'Wow, the world is so colorful and so romantic. I really want to make a movie like this.' "