The Last Supper (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Arrow Films) Running Time: 116 minutes approx.
Chinese history is a sprawling rich tapestry full of legends featuring warring generals, ruling dynasties and Shakespearean-esque tales of deceit and betrayal. For those of us outside of Asia, we rely on the cinematic depictions of events from this illustrious bygone era, but how much of it is actually accurate?
Since we have become accustomed to seeing lavish costume dramas with wire-fu sword fights and epic army battles, director Lu Chuan follows up his chilling essay on the Rape of Nanking in 2009’s City Of Life And Death with what he hopes is a more accurate and faithful representation of his country’s historical legends.
Told through ailing 61 year-old Emperor Liu Bang (Liu Ye), founder of the Han Dynasty who is haunted by paranoia and nightmares that his two most feared enemies, Xiang Yu (Daniel Wu) and Han Xin (Chang Chen), are plotting to kill him. Through flashbacks we learn of how Liu came to know both men, beginning life as a commoner who eventually rose to rule the country.
How Chuan’s film differs from most on the subject, notably 2011’s White Vengeance, is by keeping the story away from the battlefields. There are brief spurts of action but anyone expecting a full out multi-man blood and guts pile up is in for disappointment. Chuan has kept this a character driven film, relying on the voice over narration from Liu to report any major military victories.
This is Chuan’s attempt to keep this retelling of history as accurate and realistic as possible, not allowing such easy distractions as full scale battles to dilute the importance of the story at hand. However, Chuan is a little presumptuous in presenting a film that requires prior or in depth knowledge from its audience of this history, which will prove a rarity on this side of the world.
Depending on your patience and leanings towards slow and methodical storytelling, this might prove to be a bit of a slog for some viewers. There are brief moments of violence when a character is executed but the modus operandi for this film is very much “sit back and learn”. It is a fascinating story of intrigue, political and military tactics, subterfuge and duplicity although the flashback method proves a distracting force.
Liu was a peasant of Pei country who joined General Yu’s campaign to overthrow the Qin Dynasty when his wife Lu Zhi (Qin Lan) was captured by the then Emperor Ziying (Lü Yulai). Working together Liu and Yu scored many victories on the battlefield but Liu broke protocol by entering the royal palace and conquering Ziying before Yu. Becoming concerned about Liu’s ambitions and loyalty Yu arranges a banquet at Hong Gate.
This is a famous moment in Chu-Han Contention as Yu planned to have Liu assassinated but Liu was ready and managed to escape with some help, something which bugged Yu and others involved for years. Liu, along with Han Xin, who defected from Yu’s army, set up his own army to overthrow Yu and do battle for the kingdom.
Keeping track of who is aligned with whom is admittedly a little difficult, not just because of the frequency of the defections and the switching of timelines, but the cast all look very similar with their long beards, sharp features and similar attire – be it armour or formal robes; even the three main women, Lu Zhi, Liu’s concubine Qi (Siyan Huo) and Yu’s wife (Cuckoo He) all look alike too!
It is really in the final act that things truly begin to heat up, and not before time, as the film feels like it has run its course by the 90-minute mark, already seeming longer. But as the now older, wiser and still mentally alert Empress Lu Zhi plays her trump cards in the wake of her husband’s weakness the threads of deceit unravel in quick succession and those due to be punished get theirs in some gruesome ways.
One of the more overt moments of symbolism comes when court minister Xiao He (Sha Yi) is dictating the true events of Liu’s rise to the top to the court scribes but no-one is writing them down. Lu Zhi appears having heard everything, and presents him with the new version of events as she wants them known – in other words, history is written by the winners.
What will likely fascinate western audiences is the lack of clear cut protagonist. None of the principal players come out of this smelling of peonies, having all committed some kind of moral or personal offence at one stage or another. Liu is posited as a good guy at the start until his true history is revealed, while the devious Yu is shown to be very charitable when he first assumes power – which, as we know, corrupts.
Visually this is a typically sumptuous affair of staggering beauty and meticulous attention to detail, captured through flattering and evocative camerawork. The cast are all uniformly superb in their demanding roles, especially as they play their characters from young to old. The make-up is astounding and along with the performances on would never guess some of the doddering old folk were only in their 30’s.
It is these elements that are most likely to keep the audience engaged, with the slow pacing and absence of action set pieces to break up the often sombre and dour moods created through the melancholic haze of Liu’s paranoid delusions. One could argue this is a Chinese take on Shakespeare, sharing as it does its propensity for dialogue over action to relate its complex plot.
Lu Chuan remains a distinctly bold and thoughtful filmmaker and, as much as The Last Supper is a departure for him, it reflects both his strengths behind the camera and his weaknesses translating his style to mainstream projects. If you don’t mind the plodding history lesson or enjoy immersive period productions, a fine film awaits – otherwise wait for the next wu xia flick!
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black