Chuan Lu’s follow-up to City of Life and Death is an ambitious retelling of the birth of the Han Dynasty in China in 206 BC, specifically the story of Liu Bang’s rise to the Emperorship told in flashback from his death bed. It’s an epic and beautifully-filmed story of suspicion and betrayal, but ultimately one that founders on an inability to truly connect with its characters as human beings.
Liu (Liu Ye) begins his ascent as rebel leader of the Han people, and the first half of The Last Supper details the events leading up to the infamous Feast at Hong Gate, a failed assassination attempt by Liu’s associate Lord Yu (Daniel Wu) which would have quelled the Han Dynasty in its infancy. The latter half of the film then deals with the aging Emperor’s paranoia about the two men who helped him in his ascendency, and his wife’s (Qin Lan) endeavours to eliminate these men and assure her husband’s legacy.
Without doubt Lu Chuan’s film is a visual feast, albeit one without the budget to stage any effective battle sequences, so much of what we see is the causes and consequences of the various conflicts that swept Liu to supreme power. The tone is set by the sequence in which a younger Liu is given command of several thousand soldiers by the incumbent Emperor; although the scene is played with sufficient tension – and just a hint that Liu is receiving supernatural support – to convey its import, Lu Chuan doesn’t really show us who Liu is or why the commander of these forces should trust him. It’s a problem that dogs the film; the principal events are lovingly recreated, but the relationships between the protagonists are too vague to generate sufficient emotional engagement with the subsequent unravelling of their affiliations.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of substance in the narrative, with parallels being drawn between Yu’s unsuccessful plot to kill Liu and the empress’ eventual execution of General Xin (Chang Chen), the third in the triumvirate of insurrectionists, and allusions made to the way in which history is told and how trustworthy it might therefore be – suggestions that in less competent hands might undermine the film but instead serve to reinforce it. The flashback structure is effective and the acting is exemplary, and finally in dealing with Xin’s memories of his days in Liu’s service, and his minister Xiao’s (Sha Yi) reaction to the empress’ plan to have him executed, the film finds the heart it has so badly been in need of hitherto.
This is a gorgeous work and a valuable window into the formation of one of the most powerful nations on the planet, it’s just a pity it’s too impassive to fully involve as a piece of storytelling.
THE LAST SUPPER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHUAN LU / STARRING: LIU YE, DANIEL WU, CHANG CHEN, QIN LAN, SHA YI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW