Ain’t no mountain high enough: An interview with Lu Chuan
A young director with high aspirations, we talk to Lu Chuan exclusively about his second film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, set in the Tibetan Plateau…
‘I want to make history. I want to make a brand new film that people have never seen before.’ Ambitious words, but with Kekexili: Mountain Patrol only his second feature, Lu Chuan is already nearly there. It’s such a tour-de-force that these words do not seem boastful at all, though fresh-faced Lu doesn’t even look all of his 36 years.
But then Lu was determined to bring the story of Kekexili to the screen from the first time he heard about it in the newspapers in the late 90s, even though at the time he was only a budding director, having not long graduated from the Beijing Film Academy.
Inspired by true event, the film tells of a patrol in the Quinghu province on the Tibetan plateau, made up of local volunteers who desperately trying to stop the killing of rare Tibetan Antelopes for their fur. As their leader embarks on a mission to bring to justice the poachers who have killed one of their group, a journalist from Beijing accompanies them on their perilous quest. In reality, his report shocked a nation and led to the area becoming a national reserve, Lu Chuan among them.
‘Actually for me, the story wasn’t so much about the animal. It was about human nature. I remember reading about it in the newspapers about 1998 or 1999. The report was about the entire history of this mountain patrol, from the founding of the team to the eventual disbanding by the government. The whole thing. I was so shocked, because they devoted almost everything to their roles – even their lives – for something they believed in, only to get nothing in return. I thought it could make a perfect movie, but I wanted to make it for them. I wanted to tell their story.’
Of course, that would be some time off. After getting his master degree in film studies, Lu Chuan became director for the Creative Centre of the China Film Group, a position he still holds, and began to have some success writing for television. His first film, The Missing Gun, was such a hit, both critically and at the box office, that his production company Sony Colombia were happy to allow their director carte blanche to choose his next project. And anyway, it had a low budget of little more than 1 million USD, which Lu and his company used to make the money over two and a half years. ‘It wasn’t that big a deal for them!’
Having travelled near the area, or at least the Sichuan side of the Tibetan Plateau, Lu depiction of the patrol and their lives rings quite true. Did he know it well, or was it all down to his research?
‘Yes, I knew the area, but after I decided to make this movie I decided to travel there and interview the local people firsthand, to better understand them. I wanted to know everything there was to know about them, to be an expert on their culture and their history.’ He spent several months there, even managing to make friends with ex-patrol members and ex-poachers alike.
In that respect, being both writer and director allowed him much more time to devote to the project. ‘I think it gives me the freedom to change and improve my idea. It’s like two steps. The first step is writing, clarifying and purifying your ideas. You select and organise all the material you want to pull together. Choose what you want to do, and throw away the rest. Then as director, you have the space to improve it, because you are in the real location, facing the local people everyday.’
‘You know, no film is perfect. There will always be one or two places where it could have been better. So the more time you involve in one project, the better the result.’
Amazingly, Lu did indeed choose to film in the real location of the story. Didn’t he find it as difficult as the characters in his movie?
‘It wasn’t difficult – it was TOO difficult!’ Lu laughs. ‘You know the oxygen is very thin there, no more than a third of what it would be at a lower altitude, so people in the area get tired very easily. The height is over 4,700 metres.
‘Obviously filming requires a lot of heavy labour, so I felt really sorry for my staff. I really made them suffer during the shooting! By the end over half had left due to illness. Even I have terrible memories of working there – I dare not look back! It was so cold, the food was so bad, houses were freezing, everything was terrible! I mean, during the day we’d be making the film, which would be exciting. But then we’d all go back to the shabby, so-called ‘hotel’. Terrible!’
Unsurprisingly, that environment makes a considerable, unavoidable impact on the film. ‘It was my impression when I first entered the area with the mountain patrol. It’s such a fantastic, expansive, place it deeply shocked me. It was inside of everything. That’s why I put the environment inside the film. It’s as much a character as the members of the patrol. An invisible character if you like, but part of everything.’
In the film, those desperate conditions call for desperate measures, and the patrol compromise their moral position, having to sell the fur they were set up to protect to buy fuel and supplies.
‘Actually, for me, that was the most interesting part of the story. It’s the reason why I wanted to make the film. When I read the report, I decided I wanted to show this in my movie because I believe it is truth of human nature. The reality. In our lives we always struggle for that.
‘Say you were staving on the street, you have no food or shelter, and you saw a wallet in front of you, what should you do? Would you take some money to buy some food? Wouldn’t that be okay? Morality isn’t as easy as good or bad when it’s life or death. People have their disciplines, the rules they live within, but they break them, because they have desires. So I think it’s very interesting for me to explore this part of human nature. I just wanted to show it in my own way. I didn’t want to make a judgement. That’s enough for me. ‘
I wonder if he had any problems making the movie, as often the view outside of China is that the government often has quite a conservative view of the media.
‘Maybe five years ago China had strict censorship, but more recently, in the last few years, the censorship has become looser. So a film like Kekexili can be shown in China and released overseas. I think the Film Bureau in China is changing their policy. Yes, I guess in some ways they have been conservative, but economy can change everything.’
So what is his next project? ‘It will be called Nanking Nanking. It’s a war film, actually. About the infamous Nanking massacure, which happened during the Sino-japanese war.’
Surprisingly, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol didn’t repeat the success of his first film in China. The distributors showed little faith in it – they released it alongside a blockbuster, choosing to show it at unpopular times like 9am and 11pm. Yet that didn’t dent it’s popularity, the film found a much larger audience in China on TV movie channels and DVD.
It also hasn’t impacted the critical acclaim that Kekexili has rightly received and Lu hopes that this wider theatrical release will help his reputation in the UK and beyond. He’s also happy that more people will be given the chance to remember the mountain patrol…
Many thanks to Lu Chuan for his time, and to Tom of Axiom Films for setting up the interview.