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Lu Chuan: Expanding the Universal Language of Film

By Jessie Liu and Francisco Arechiga

Jan. 21, 2016
Director Lu Chuan Expanding the Language of Film
Director Lu Chuan (Photo credit:) Chuan Films

Lu Chuan is a renowned Chinese filmmaker, screenwriter and producer. Lu was named one of the “10 Directors to Watch” by Variety, and his film “City of Life and Death” was named “Best Foreign Film” at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Other notable works include “The Missing Gun,” “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol,” and the “The Last Supper.” His latest 3D sci-fi thriller "Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe," grossed 110M USD in mainland China and won a “Golden Angel” award at the 11th Chinese American Film Festival.

Your most recent film, “Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe” was your first attempt at a commercial sci-fi film, and your first international co-production. What was the most interesting thing that you took away from that experience? What were the greatest challenges?

Actually, I learned a lot from working with this international team. In terms of production, international teams often deliver beyond my expectations. For this project I worked with Dexter Studios from Korea, and every time they heard one of my ideas, they offered me three different approaches to choose from. I was really moved by their passion for their work and drive to deliver above and beyond expectation. They clearly wanted to bring the story to life. An example was the scene in the Kunlun Mountains, where the special effects team created this really beautiful animation of a fire-bat dodging a bullet. That was something that we hadn’t even considered in the preliminary design, but the designers were drawing from their own inspiration, and the result was stunning.

The attention to detail, level of dedication and standard of excellence that I have found in foreign production teams is something that native Chinese filmmakers could learn from. A high-quality film is not merely a reflection of a director’s ability; it comes down to the contribution of everyone on the set and behind the scenes.

Watch the trailer for "Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe:"

Compared with Hollywood films that screen in China, movies that enjoyed box-office success in China have generally had a much harder time in the United States. Even with the support of overseas Chinese, they still struggle to attract mainstream Western audiences. What do you think it will take to create a Chinese film that wins over Western audiences?

Chinese films today are something that only Chinese audiences can really understand. This has to do with the approach to production as well as the content. What will appeal to Western audiences? One potential area is to draw from the distinctive beauty of Chinese culture, like Chinese writing, classical poetry, cuisine, etc. These cultural elements are already established and have fans around the world.

On the other hand, there are topics that will only resonate with local audiences, like Chinese opera. If you bring this overseas, only a Chinese audience will be able to appreciate it, an American audience wouldn’t understand the humor, because there are too many cultural elements -- there’s no way to achieve wider distribution.

Another option is to emulate Hollywood blockbusters and create films with global appeal. In analyzing the formula behind these films’ success, the logic is quite simple, yet effective, because they embody universal values. So if we want our cultural products, like film, to enjoy wider distribution, we can’t stay bound within the Chinese perspective. We have to consider the perspective of all humanity. The key is to do this without abandoning our Chinese background. That’s how we can create Chinese films with real value.

Over the past year or two, there have been quite a few U.S. China joint-productions, but the extent of the collaboration has generally been limited to investment, or including a Chinese actor in a major Hollywood production. What do you think it will take for the Chinese film industry to have a deeper collaboration with Hollywood?

The Chinese film industry is growing, while the American market has been losing momentum. This is one reason that foreign investors and companies have been entering China in recent years. The rise in co-productions and use of Chinese actors in American films are following market demand. [While] these so-called “Chinese elements” appearing in big American films are still popular with Chinese audiences, interweaving a few small twists doesn’t really change the fact that these are fundamentally Hollywood productions, so American audiences can still enjoy them. So far this kind of “U.S.-China co-production” is a mutually beneficial phenomenon for the first and second largest film markets.

There’s no doubt that America remains the world’s dream factory when it comes to creating films. That won’t change much over the next few years. The question is, as the Chinese film industry continues to develop, and Chinese audiences’ interest in film evolves, will they continue to be satisfied by superficial tie-ins? I think American companies are currently considering this issue and are eagerly hoping to find a deeper form of engaging Chinese audiences. Until then, American filmmakers need to search for a more rational and organic way to integrate “Chinese elements” into films, and not simply as a token gesture to satisfy Chinese audiences.

Director Lu Chuan receiving Golden Angel Award for Best Director at the 2015 Chinese American Film Festival
Director Lu Chuan receiving Golden Angel Award for Best Director at the 2015 Chinese American Film Festival (Photo credit:) EDI Media Group

After “Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe” hit theaters, the internet exploded with comparisons between the “749 bureau,” a secret government agency in the film, and the [American] secret service. To me, this reflects an interesting form of thinking -- what if we took a grander world view, one that incorporated organizations throughout America, China and the rest of the world as a backdrop for superhero adventures? With science fiction as a foundation, cultural differences become much easier to deal with.

Storylines about heroes saving the world from disaster aren’t only appreciated by American audiences-- it's an ancient premise with world-wide appeal. In Chinese all the variations of so and so “man” gets translated into the equivalent of “knight,” because it has similarities with our literary tradition of chivalrous adventures. In folklore throughout the world there are examples of heroic individuals accomplishing extraordinary feats and challenging demons. Although it’s a simple idea, it has remained an enduring cinematic theme since the birth of film.

As we explore the structure of imaginary civilizations, we are innately re-asserting the qualities of human heroes. In a fictional doomsday scenario, it seems like there’s the potential for Chinese-style “knights” and Western heroes to fight side by side. In this kind of film, both Western and Chinese directors could each shoot a portion of the film, creating a series of connections that audience could identify with more strongly. This kind of collaboration would enhance a Chinese director’s ability to master large-scale commercial productions as well as an American director’s understanding of and connection with Chinese audiences.

Artistic merit and commercial viability are often factors that Chinese directors seek to balance. Do you think there is anything that Hollywood films could learn from this tension?

Artist merit and commercial viability are not mutually exclusive. It’s not true in the U.S. or in China, and we shouldn’t use these grossly over-simplified classifications for movies. On a recent trip to the U.S., I watched “The Martian,” and “Steve Jobs.” “The Martian” was directed by Ridley Scott, a vanguard director who made films such as “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” Similarly, “Steve Jobs” was directed by Danny Boyle, another great indie director who also has commercial success.  Duncan Jones, who just made the highly anticipated “World of Warcraft” also directed “Moon” and “Source Code.” Each of these directors has high artistic standards and is also able to work with highly commercial projects. They manage to create works with great artistic integrity without feeling like it is being forced on the audience.

What advice do you have for young people with ambitions to pursue a career in Chinese film?

The film industry in China is developing and changing rapidly. On the one hand, this presents many opportunities, but it also implies great turbulence. What would happen if the Chinese film market were to become 100% deregulated, and all of the major American films were allowed to enter the market?

On the positive side, I believe that intensified competition in the future will yield great innovation. This means that we need to not only invest in smaller films in hopes of creating a break-out success, but we also develop our model for creating big-budget productions. Over the next 20 years, the pressing question for Chinese filmmakers is how China can close the gap with Hollywood in terms of producing major homegrown productions. We need to read more, to watch more film and open our eyes to developments in the wider world. That way we can polish our professionalism as we continue to make films.

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