One of China’s most innovative filmmakers, Lu Chuan has attempted to reinvent the Chinese historical epic with The Last Supper, which screens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the Narrative Competition.

The $14m film is based on true events surrounding the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han Dynasty in the third century BC. Leading Chinese actor Liu Ye plays Han Dynasty emperor Liu Bang, while Hong Kong star Daniel Wu plays his friend and eventual rival, Xiang Yu.

Backed by Beijing-based Stellar Megamedia, The Last Supper has had its Chinese release date delayed a few times, as it deals with political issues in a year when China’s leadership is changing hands, but may be released in November. Wild Bunch boarded the film last year as international sales agent. It received its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Why did you want to film this particular period of history? And how did you approach it?

I’ve made four movies so far and tried to make a different movie every time - this film is my first historical epic. It was a challenge because there have been hundreds of historical movies in China and they can be old-fashioned. Some of our greatest directors have failed in their historical films.

However, I wanted to make something different that examined the humanity of Chinese political rulers throughout history. Over two thousand years of our history, the political situation has been repeated over and over again. Political leaders fight for freedom and establish a new system, but eventually become dictators themselves. I wanted to examine why it’s been this way.

Has the subject matter led to censorship problems?

The censors said this is a story about Chairman Mao, but it’s actually not; I only wanted to examine the issues of political systems and humanity. If I wanted to make a film about Chairman Mao, I would have made that film, as I’m not a coward. This is a story about the first king of the Han Dynasty - I believe two thousand years of history have been influenced by his personal biography.

Do you think it’s difficult to get international audiences to understand Chinese historical films?

I’m quite sure that the Chinese audience will understand this film because I’ve shown it to friends and they get it from the first five minutes. But I’m not so confident about the overseas market. Wild Bunch told me there are so many Chinese names and faces and the Western audience isn’t familiar with the history. So I’ve re-edited again and again to help foreign audiences understand the film.  

So you have different cuts for the local and international audience?

I hate doing that as I think the best movies should only have one version - so although there are two versions, there is only a slight difference. However I did point out to Wild Bunch that in China we still watch French and American historical movies, even though we’re not familiar with Medieval Europe or the American Civil War!

How has the Chinese film industry been effected by the expansion of the foreign film quota?

Our domestic film industry is under huge pressure from Hollywood movies, but I believe this is a good thing because it will teach [China’s] Film Bureau that filmmaking is a kind of entertainment and not a political issue. The only way to help Chinese movies is to eliminate censorship and give freedom to everybody.