At US$15 million (HK$116 million) the most expensive movie made to date on the mainland, The Opium War is 'dedicated to a great moment in history, the return of Hong Kong to China'. Its makers insist this is an independent picture, shot outside the traditional Chinese state system. On examining its credentials, however, it is clear that director Xie Jin is no Zhang Yimou, and The Opium War is supported to the hilt at the highest levels. Personally backed by President Jiang Zemin, The Opium War in its two hours and 30-odd minutes employs a cast of thousands to delve into what its director calls 'a shameful time in British history'. Xie says the movie is an honest, soul-searching look at the events which took place in 1839 and led to the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. 'Only when a nation truly stands up, can it face up to and reflect on the times when it was oppressed,' he says, adding no side is spared in this historical document. Yet, when it came to the Cannes Film Festival in early May - when every Chinese film did a disappearing act from the schedules - only The Opium War remained. Not part of any competition, and obviously not short of financial support, it was there to source international distribution. And throughout a stormy fortnight for Chinese film, The Opium War Film and Television Company sat tight in its shared offices with Korean giant Samsung. Xie, 74, has friends in high places. The Opium War is a mysterious film; expensive - although at US$15 million, it will soon be outranked as China's most lavish production by Chen Kaige's Assassins - it was financed privately after Xie proposed the project to the National Political Consultative Conference (where he's a member of the standing committee). When word emerged that President Jiang - Xie's old pal - thought the movie a wonderful idea, The Opium War Film and Television Company was quickly set up. Sichuan Chengdu Huitong City Bank is a major shareholder, along with Xie's own company, the Shanghai Jingwen Investment Company and China's National Culture Promotion Society. In short, although The Opium War is being touted as an independent production, the word 'quasi' should be applied. The film, which premiered in Hong Kong last week, stars actors from China (Pao Guoan), Taiwan (Lang Xiong), and Britain (Bob Peck, Simon Williams). Filmed all over China and in Britain (Oxford) over a draining six-month shoot, The Opium War was finished in a year - a taxing time for its director. 'We did not apply for government assistance; that is special,' Xie says. 'We collected money from the bank, from private companies, from the people, not from the government.' But would the people have coughed up were it not for the support of Mr Jiang? 'Jiang Zemin is a former mayor of Shanghai, he is my very good, very old friend,' the director says. 'The story is significant, especially at this time - with Hong Kong returning to China, it's important for people to know about this event. So Jiang Zemin has paid attention to this film. 'All over the world, Chinese want to make a great celebration for this moment, because the territory was lost and now we are resuming sovereignty. So Jiang Zemin said not only did he think The Opium War was a very good idea to commemorate the event, he also found it an interesting topic. 'Why are you so interested in Jiang Zemin?' On to other matters, then. Xie denies The Opium War is a political tool. Best known internationally for Hibiscus Town, although his 54-year career also includes titles such as No 5 Woman Basketball Player, Red Woman Troop and Garlands Below The Mountain, Xie is a member of several governmental cultural bodies in China, a dean of the Film and TV Art Institute of the Shanghai University, and runs his own film company and training school. He was acutely aware, he says, of the Opium War as a child. 'I like to direct historical movies,' he says, 'and there has never been a movie made about the Opium War, which I set out to correct. It's a very important war in China's history; it set the stage for a new period. For a hundred years, the Chinese were adversely affected by this. It's a sorrowful event. I knew this as a child, that it was a deep thing for China. 'But it's no easy task, to make a film for Hong Kong's return to China. The Opium War tells of all the experiences, not just from a Chinese perspective. It teaches us many lessons.' It is a complicated piece, kicking off in spring 1839, when the emperor's special envoy in Guangzhou, Lin Zexu (Pao Guoan) instituted an anti-opium drive with public executions which led to the confiscation of all opium belonging to British traders and large-scale destruction of the drug, and set the scene for the declaration of war on China by Britain. 'Opium damaged the Chinese people; China was weakened by the drug,' Xie says. 'We lost our territory. Why did the world allow this to happen? Now we can review this moment of history and see that it didn't take a lot to crush China, to defeat the Chinese armies. 'China was so weak, its doors were open, not just to the British but to any other Western power who had an interest in coming in. 'When parliament voted to go to war, the result was 271 votes against 262; so a differential of nine votes meant Britain went to war. So we have to remember that the war was controversial, even in Britain. 'We closely follow the history in this film. 'When we shot in Oxford, many of the British actors were worried - were they taking part in an anti-English film? But they agreed with what we were trying to say. They understand that this film is loyal to the British side of things too. This movie is history.' One-third of The Opium War is in the English language. And Xie admits the story was difficult to film, technically and historically. With an adviser in Taiwan (Hsing Lee) and director Ann Hui helping out in Hong Kong, Xie hopes the resulting picture will help 'wash the century-old humiliation off a nation'. 'Almost every nation has a shameful period of history. For China, the Cultural Revolution is not a good period. For England, the Opium War is shameful,' the director says. But what about the non-appearance of Chinese directors in Cannes - is that not also a difficult period for those involved in the cultural arena? 'This thing just happened,' says the director of the controversy surrounding the pictures of Zhang Yimou and Zhang Yuan. 'Just happened to happen. By chance.' Speaking at an apartment rented by the Opium War Company in Cannes, he adds: 'What happened to another director, I don't know. I'm too busy making my own film. We have been on a tight schedule. So I haven't the time to find out what has happened to other directors. Why are you so interested in this?' Set up specifically for this film, the Opium War Company may make another historical drama - which Samsung is interested in backing. With no apparent shortage of cash, Xie and his employees are interested in the international marketplace. 'It's important for people to know about China and this they can learn through history,' he says, proffering a 'souvenir' Opium War mug, which, when filled with hot water, changes to show the director silhouetted against the Humen skyline. 'After all, if you look back at the Opium War, at that time Britain was the strongest country in the West and China was the largest power in the East. 'Before the war, these two countries never met and they didn't know each other; they met in battle and learned their lessons. 'Lessons we never forget to this day.'