With big budget Chinese historical dramas and epics still proving incredibly popular, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that two films went into production around the same time about the Feast at Hong Gate, one of the most key and controversial event in the annals of the country’s history. Thankfully, the two films in question take very different approaches to the material, Daniel Lee’s reasonably enjoyable 2011 outing “White Vengeance” having focused mainly on the battles and personal rivalries. Now appearing somewhat later out of the gate is “The Last Supper”, arguably the more promising of the pair due to the presence of acclaimed director Lu Chuan, whose recent “City of Life and Death” still stands as one of the best Chinese films of the last decade. As expected, Lu’s offering is both more artistic and philosophically-minded, with Liu Ye (“City of Life and Death”), Daniel Wu (“Overheard”) and Chang Chen (“The Grandmaster”) taking on the legendary roles of Liu Bang, Xiang Yu and Han Xin.
Set some 2000 years ago after the formation of the Han Dynasty, the film opens with Emperor Liu Bang (Liu Ye) as an old and ailing man, still convinced that his enemies and allies are all out to overthrow him. Urged on by the Empress (Qin Lan, “City of Life and Death”), he plots and sets traps to capture or kill them while his strength lasts. Tortured by nightmares and visions, he reflects on the past and the key events in his rise to power, which saw him starting off as a mere peasant soldier fighting with the great Xiang Yu (Daniel Wu) against the Qin. Though Liu won many famous victories with Xiang, he risked everything by entering the fabled palace of the defeated Qin Emperor first, leading to the famous banquet at Hong Gate. Forced to flee, Liu rallied his troops, and with the support of the defecting general Han Xin (Chang Chen) was able to seize power for himself.
Although it may sound trite, a fairly accurate comparison for “The Last Supper” is “Game of Thrones”, as the film is filled with the same kind of deceptions, shifting allegiances and dark political scheming, with plenty of surprises and ruthless twists along the way for viewers unfamiliar with historical events. Lu goes for a boldly skewed narrative that leaps around through flashbacks, flash-forwards, memories and visions, working in different perspectives while subtly informing the viewer of the inherent unreliability of it all – the fact that history is written by those in power is very much the message here, and the film is quite clearly intended as a reflection of the murkiness of politics and manoeuvring in present day China.
The film is one long moral grey area as a result, and Lu Chuan does a fantastic job of pulling together an intelligent and gripping narrative that shows a level of depth most uncommon in other recent Chinese epics. The film has a definite Shakespearian feel to it, recalling “Macbeth” and “King Lear” in particular, and also shows the influence of some of Kurosawa’s finest works, much to its benefit. The three male leads also play their parts in the film’s success, Liu Ye, Daniel Wu and Chang Chen each really nailing their roles and adding great dramatic weight to the story.
Admittedly, it does help if the viewer has some knowledge or awareness of the characters and events, as the complex and dense narrative moves quickly and without making too many allowances for the uninitiated. The cast is huge, and though most players are introduced via onscreen text, some may find themselves getting a little overwhelmed, even though the film is essentially not too difficult to follow. Given the increasingly generic feel to so many Chinese historical blockbusters, this is a small price to pay for the fresh and innovative feel that Lu brings to the table. He also brings his considerable artistic talents, and the film is frequently visually stunning, mixing beautifully barren scenery with amazing sets and the odd moment of stunningly grandiose flair. The production values are impressive throughout, giving the film the rare feel of a big budget piece of art house cinema.
“The Last Supper” is certainly an unconventional Chinese period epic and is all the better for it, standing as the best of its kind of recent years. Though its at times unforgiving and leftfield approach might turn some viewers off, Lu Chuan is unquestionably one of the country’s bravest and most accomplished directors, and the film is another fine addition to his CV.
Chuan Lu (director) / Chuan Lu (screenplay)
CAST: Ye Liu … Liu Bang
Daniel Wu … Xiang Yu
Chen Chang … Han Xin
Qi Li … Xiang Bo
Yulai Lu … Zi Ying