With a sagging sun, a wayward horse and an IV drip poking out of his arm to contend with, Lu Chuan has had better days. He’s been trying since lunch to capture two hundred Qin dynasty warriors galloping over the wild grasslands of Xian. But lead actor Daniel Wu’s horse is acting up, and as the light fades, hope that this five-second shot – the day’s sole purpose – will be completed is dwindling.

This is the set of The Last Supper, Lu’s historical thriller that charts the events surrounding the legendary Feast at Hong Gate (206BC), where two great generals, Liu Bang (played by Liu Ye, who was Mao Zedong in The Founding of a Republic) and Xiang Yu (Wu), dissolve the Qin dynasty and establish the Han. In China, the story of the feast itself, in which one general betrays the other, is infamous: ‘a feast at Hong Gate’ in Mandarin means an invitation to something that on the face of it seems joyous but in fact hides sinister motives.

As proved with City of Life and Death (2009), Lu, 41, doesn’t balk at tackling pivotal moments in Chinese history. Lauded by critics in the West (it won the best film at the San Sebastian Film Festival), City is a brutal, meticulously crafted chronicle of the Battle of Nanking in 1937, when the Japanese seized the city and killed up to 300,000 people. Though it was pulled from cinemas after 20 days here – there was controversy over Lu’s sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese, as well as the graphic violence – the film did plenty to establish Lu as one of China’s most exciting directors.

‘In China, Nanjing! Nanjing! [City’s Chinese title] became the hottest topic on TV. Even sitting in restaurants, I could hear it being discussed,’ says Lu, in near-perfect English over a hot pot dinner. Dressed simply in jeans and a black hoodie, Chuan is taller than expected and despite his appendicitis (hence the drip) he’s animated over dinner, joking with Liu Ye about the actor’s performance shooting sex scenes. He even ganbeis a little baijiu.

‘But Nanjing! Nanjing! is like a mirror held up to society showing that it was sick, so after 20 days they stopped showing it in cinemas,’ Lu says. Despite a shortened run, the film was seen by almost 1 million people, grossing 24 million USD in China alone.

And as the film is slated to be at major foreign film festivals next year, The Last Supper has bigger ambitions. Today, some 250 cast members, crew and extras are assembled on wind turbine-dotted grasslands 30 minutes from the Great Wall north of Beijing (the area standing in for Xian). Off-duty Qin warriors rest against a China Film Group truck and beyond the maze of vehicles, antiqued wagons and vats of arrows, the camera is trained on a hazy clump of warriors in the distance.

A fast worker Lu is not. The Last Supper, his fourth film (after 2002’s The Missing Gun and 2004’s Kekexili), has a budget of nearly 12 million USD and is already two months over the planned five-month filming schedule.

Born in Xinjiang, Lu went to a military college in Nanjing where he served in the People’s Liberation Army, studied English and was privy to the college’s impressive film library. Though he went on to complete a master’s at the Beijing Film Academy, history – and particularly its misrepresentation – has always been a passion for Lu and spurred him to dig into the events surrounding the Feast at Hong Gate. ‘In China, history belongs to the victor,’ Lu says. ‘But history is history, no one has the right to change it.’ Lu spent months researching and speaking to historians before writing The Last Supper. Expect pernickety attention to detail, from the type of armour the soldiers wear to the yi chi style of eating popular during the period. Yet, Lu says his film might not play out the way audiences expect.

‘When I make a movie I don’t think about the audience, I follow my own insights,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to make a cake to cater to the audience, I don’t want to make a mass-produced product.’

Visually, too, The Last Supper stands out. Almost all of it is filmed on a handheld camera giving the footage that we were shown a visceral immediacy. ‘I hope my film has the breath of human beings. I want to erase the distance between the audience and the movie; I want them to be able to smell it, to touch it, to really be there.’

It’s an aesthetic also deployed in City, where the opening battle scenes showcase the power of the handheld perspective: the viewer is sucked into the rubble of Nanjing, a cityscape rendered in black and white and traumatised by grenade blasts, twisted bodies and ricocheting bullets.

City is punctuated with scenes of acute violence and rape and we express our surprise that the film was allowed into theatres at all. ‘Well, I was reallysurprised,’ says Lu. ‘I left in lots of sex and violence hoping that they’d [the censors] notice that and leave my message alone, but they didn’t take anything out at all – neither the message nor the sex and violence. They just asked me to remove two scenes.’

Back in the director’s tent, Lu leans forward in his wheelchair, fixated by the grainy image on the monitor. A flag waves and the clump of warriors, led by Wu in a gold-plumed helmet and on a different horse, gallop towards the lens. The new horse behaves, there are shouts of ‘gou le!’ (‘enough’) and the crew packs up.

Lu has big plans for The Last Supper. After completing the major film festival circuit he’s aiming for international cinematic release – a still-challenging feat that all too often eludes Chinese filmmakers.

But will a film stridently rooted in Chinese history hold universal appeal? ‘The film is not simply about this period,’ says Lu. ‘It’s a film about conspiracy and betrayal. These are found throughout the world, throughout history, and the story I want to tell is about that.’


Link to Time Out Shanghai