Lu_ChuanSHANGHAI — Last time Time Out met Lu Chuan, he was shooting on location with an IV drip attached to his arm. Nine months later, he again looks peaky. News that the release of his new film, The Last Supper, will be delayed has left shadows under the 42-year-old director’s eyes. He is also struggling with a strain of artistic malaise; the vague sense that his US$12 million film – the result of three years of painstaking historical research and the efforts of a massive cast and crew – could still do with a tweak.

It’s not surprising that Lu feels a bit tense. Since the release of 2009’s City of Life and Death, a black and white historical epic about the Nanjing Massacre that is, simply, one of the best contemporary Chinese films out there, he has gone from ‘indie director’ to the A-list. After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy, Lu made two films in relative obscurity: The Missing Gun (2002) and Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004). It was City of Life and Death that catapulted the director into international columns, not least because of the film’s controversy. After doing well initially in the box office (RMB$150 million in under three weeks), the film was pulled from theatres after igniting discussion (and derision) over its perceived sympathy towards the Japanese.

With The Last Supper, Lu returns to Chinese history again, this time with Shakespearean ambition. A complex and interwoven plot details the bloody birth of the Han dynasty (206 BC) where one general, Liu Bang (Liu Ye) betrays his former ally, Xiang Yu (Daniel Wu), to seize the throne. Going back and forth in time, the film exposes a king who is the victim of his own ambition. Emperor Liu is haunted by ghosts of his past, while his Lady Macbeth, Empress Liu (Qin Lan), readily spills blood to retain power.

Lu’s own ambitions are similarly effusive. He wants to rewrite China’s history books. “In [the West] you support the truth,” says Lu in near-flawless English. “But in China most people don’t recognise what they received in their history education is not so true. I want to show that 2,000 years ago, when the Han dynasty was established, we were already in the habit of telling lies. Each time a new governor established a dynasty they destroyed what came before. Maybe we do have 2,000 years’ worth of history – but we don’t have reliable records.”

Lu was born in Xinjiang and attended a People’s Liberation Army-affiliated university in Nanjing, where he majored in English Literature. (He had a soft spot for Dickens and picked JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for his final thesis). It was there, living a disciplined military-style life, that his love of film was fostered – though he had wanted to be a director since watching Zhang Yimou films aged 14. “My English teachers had all worked abroad and they showed us lots of foreign movies,” Lu says.

He remembers watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with 100 classmates. “When the movie finished half of them were crying. It was like a mirror. We were suffering something similar to the characters. We were in the mad house!” Lu completed two years of military duty before leaving the PLA. He was awarded one of three spots on the directing masters course at the Beijing Film Academy.

Lu has always been fascinated by history, and beyond: the space between record, revisionism and what really occurred. In City of Life and Death, he attempts to counteract more nationalistic versions of the massacre. With The Last Supper he revisits a popular period of history, exposing both the gaps in official history and the murky depths of the human psyche, where a rural everyman can transform into a despot.
Lu, who, when healthy, laces his words with sarcasm and has a nonchalant charm about him, is surprised at how macabre his films turn out. “I think my military experience had a special influence, it made my films violent,” he says. “I feel like there’s a monster inside my body who pushes me to do this sort of film. Each time I see my movie I have a realisation: I’m not a person I know. It’s fortunate to have the chance to make a film. You explore your mind.”

Through making films about the past, Lu can also explore contemporary society – he calls history a ‘mirror’. This sometimes works against him. The main reason behind The Last Supper’s delayed release, Lu says, is the unfortunate parallels to contemporary Chinese politics and events in Chongqing. “They’re afraid this movie will affect the stability of society,” says Lu. “In the last 2,000 years many things have changed, but human beings’ desires and dreams don’t change. The desire for power, to be a dictator, doesn’t change.”

Like many contemporary artists working in China, Lu has found a way to work within the system. “You can’t make a movie about the political system now,” he says. “But you can make a movie about the origins of the political system 2,000 years ago. That’s the true reason why I wanted to make The Last Supper.”

 

From the print edition. Link to Time Out