Lu Chuan’s feature movie titled “The City of Life and Death” a..k.a. “Nanjing! Nanjing!”

Lu Chuan On City Of Life And Death
The Chinese director on his World War II epic

“Filmmaking is combat. It’s a battlefield. It’s war.” Nope, not an extract from Christian Bale’s Terminator Salvation diaries but the mantra of Chinese director Lu Chuan, the creative brains behind The City Of Life And Death. The movie is part visceral war film, part jaw-dropping recreation of the occupation of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937. At its centrepiece is one of the most awe-inspiring onscreen battles since Saving Private Ryan. According to the 39 year-old director, though, a different Spielberg film was a greater influence. “I told the producers, ‘Schindler’s List is in black and white, so we should use it too.’ It has a holy power.” It’s an apt reference point – the battle is prelude to an unsparing depiction of the Rape of Nanking, a series of massacres that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians. We spoke to the director about the great challenge of bringing the story to the screen.

Why did the Rape of Nanking happen?
The Japanese troops conquered the city but they faced very serious resistance. This made the Japanese very angry, so when they conquered the city they arrested thousands of soldiers and local people — civilians. At the time, the Japanese troops were short of food and they didn’t have enough troops to control the prisoners, so they got a secret message from headquarters: “Just kill them all.” So they killed them all.
City of Life and Death

Why did you decide to make a film about it?
I studied in Nanking for four years from the age of 18. I visited the Holocaust Museum several times and I was so shocked. Since then I’ve had thoughts of making a movie about it in the future.

What were the challenges of making a film on this scale?
Actually, I’m not old enough to control a movie of this size in China. In China, the older generation of filmmakers think you’re too young to make this movie but I think I’m qualified (laughs). It’s difficult for a director to get approval from the film bureau to make a movie like this because it’s a sensitive topic – it might very easily provoke Japanese government or the Japanese people.

Has that happened?
Yes. When it opened in China all the Japanese media reported it so it’s very famous in Japan, this movie. And some of the right wing Japanese newspapers have said it’s the most dangerous movie in history against the Japanese.

It’s interesting that the depiction of the Japanese atrocities is unsparing, yet you’ve been criticised in China for being too sympathetic.
(Laughs) I was so surprised because I thought I’d made the correct decision and chosen the correct angle to tell the story. I think my fault is trying to be independent, trying to be subjective. Finally, I understand that for most Chinese people, they don’t believe Japanese people aren’t human beings; in the brain, in the souls of most Chinese people, they think Japanese people are animals. So, for 70 years, my movie may be the first to show the humanity of Japanese people, and they cannot accept it. It was interesting, I was criticised by both sides. I can understand their feelings but I think, as a filmmaker, I have a responsibility to tell the true feeling in my heart.

And surely if you don’t have a sympathetic Japanese character, you just demonise them?
I feel grateful for my Japanese actors, they are so brave, because I know they’re under huge pressure from the Japanese newspapers. They did a great job. We’re partners working together to construct a bridge. Yes, Japanese people committed a crime but maybe it’s not a fault of a certain nation, maybe it’s a fault of the war, so I’m not going to make a movie against a certain nation, but against the war. If the government forces us to go to the battlefield, everybody can be a killer.

What the influences for City Of Life And Death?
When I was growing up in Beijing, I got the chance to watch films because my mother was in charge of a theatre. My family was very poor so we couldn’t afford tickets, but she just let me go into the theatre through a secret door behind the stage and I watched movies in reverse. The cinema was not for the public, just for high-ranking officers and government officials, for VIPs, so they could see movies no-one else could see. So David Lean’s movies and Kurosawa’s war movie were influences. I studied Coppola at college, in particular Apocalypse Now. I love this movie.
City of Life and Death

What were the challenges of choreographing the central battle scene?
The battle scene took a month to make. This movie had a budget of $10 million — not a lot of money in England, but a lot for a Chinese movie, so while we wanted the best effects team in Asia we couldn’t not afford to pay the $3 million they were asking. I wanted to do it myself and I designed the whole thing like a military manoeuvre. Watching many war documentaries, we discovered that explosions are very different from war movies: in American movies there’s a lot of flash but in the real combat there’s no flash, only white smoke. So we tried to make it real.

Why did you make the film in black and white?
It was my dream. Everybody has a dream to make a black and white movie but you have little chance to achieve this because they always prove to be very difficult to sell. But this time I had the perfect opportunity to convince them; I told them “Schindler’s List is in black and white so we should be in black and white”. It’s like religion: it has a holy power, a very strong feeling of honour.

Did you make City Of Life And Death with an international audience in mind?
Yes, my dream was to make this movie for the broader world: inside of China everyone knows about this, but outside of China only a few people know about it

What are your ambitions? Hollywood?
This is third movie, and while making my second movie [Mountain Patrol] I had a dream to make a movie in Hollywood. After making this movie the dream lost its colour. I thought I could do everything but this movie gave me more feeling about human’s lives and deaths, and made me grow up. Yes, in China it’s very difficult for a filmmaker to chose a topic, to raise money, but on the other side, the filmmaker has more inspiration: me, for example, I’m in the culture, I stand on my land and while maybe I’ve face more difficulties and criticism — these can give me more power and strength. In Hollywood I don’t know what would happen.

Interview by Phil de Semlyen

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