Raising the budget for a film is not easy for any film-maker. But few have had it as hard as Chinese director Lu Chuan. He made his name internationally with festival favourite Kekexili: Mountain Patrol in 2004, but his success did not help him back home in China when trying to finance his new war film, City Of Life And Death. "In China, young directors are not so lucky to have a producer handling fundraising. You have to do it yourself," he explains.
Chinese custom required Lu to socialise with potential investors and business patrons, drinking super-strong bai jiu liquor, otherwise known as Chinese vodka, in karaoke bars through the night. "I had nights and nights of drinking and lobbying. Sometimes I had three parties in one night," Lu recalls.
The bai jiu sessions finally did the trick but they also gave Lu an ulcer and later, while in production, appendicitis.
Now the film-maker is hopeful the hardships will pay off. City Of Life And Death, (also known as Nanking! Nanking!) a drama about the infamous Nanking massacre during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, is one of the most anticipated Chinese films of 2009. Lu's eventual investors - China Film Group, Media Asia, Stellar Megamedia and Jiangsu Broadcasting System - are all throwing their weight behind the marketing and release of the film throughout Asia this year. China Film Group has made the unusual step of taking on joint international sales duties with Stellar Megamedia and Media Asia (usually, Hong Kong-China co-productions see the Hong Kong company as the only sales agent). They plan to pitch the film as a Chinese Schindler's List and Lu has shot it in black-and-white.
Commercial war films are not a popular genre in China. But Feng Xiaogang's 2007 film Assembly, generally seen as China's first non-propaganda war film, was the first to be sold successfully around the world. Lu aims to present the controversial moment in history from a new perspective. The narrative will follow the recollections of a Japanese soldier who participated in some of the killings. The production recruited more than 100 Japanese actors for the film.
Lu is seen by local critics as an impressive film-maker who manages to combine commercial ambition with artistic expression. And like many well-known Chinese film-makers, Lu's success with Kekexili has made him a role model for young Chinese. His blog attracts up to half a million readers. In addition to his film-making, Lu is known among his blog fans as a tech nerd; he is also a frequent user of Kaixin.com, China's version of Facebook. His popular fame helped a little during financing but not much: he aimed to raise $20m but settled for $10m.
"I'm always interested in the subject of death. And I wanted to explore how people treated death during war time," says the film-maker, whose credits also include The Missing Gun in 2002.
Lu's production team built a Nanjing City gate on land borrowed from the Changchun City government. In another northern Chinese city of Tianjin, they used a deserted factory for free and built sets of streets and houses of Nanjing City. "Most of my actors have given me more than 50% discount, for which I'm really grateful," Lu explains. The money saved was used in action scenes. The crew hired seven tanks and more than 10,000 extras to create the battles. There are also street battles between the Japanese troops and Chinese civilians.
"I do not intend to make a sensational film to accuse the Japanese of war crimes, or to evoke a nationalist sentiment," he explains. "I want to tell a story about the essence of war, that cruelty and distorted mind can happen to any race, any country."
Lu chuan's Cultural Life
Favourite recent films: Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley.
Favourite recent books: Diguo Zhengjie Wangshi, about the Ming dynasty. The title translates as 'political chronicles of the empire'.
Daily reads: Chinese-language Global Times
Websites: Sina.com and Kaixin.com, the Chinese version of Facebook.
Inspirations: Reading. "The story of Kekexili was inspired from an article in Southern Weekly magazine."
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