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Spectacularly beautiful and achingly poetic, Lu Chuan’s The Last Supper describes the bloody birth of the Han dynasty in the 3rd century BCE with the skill of an expressionist painter and the curiosity of a historian. Like the director’s much-admired City of Life and Death (2009) about the Nanking Massacre, it takes a real interest in the period it depicts, pinpointing the gap between the historical record, revisionism, and what really happened. This all makes for a gripping Chinese epic of Shakespearean proportions that will entrance audiences well-disposed to the genre, starting from its Toronto premiere. Not for the distracted, the film has multiple characters who are quite hard to keep straight, though it is possible to do so with careful viewing.
The first Han emperor is dying and the court is full of intrigue. Emperor Liu (City of Life and Death’s Ye Liu), an ancient-looking man with long gray hair and beard, is so sick he can barely tell his aged wife (Qin Lan) from his young concubine. Haunted by nightmares and ghosts of the past, he is horrified to see the severed head of General Xin (Chang Chen) brought before him.
He then remembers when he first saw the dashing young nobleman Lord Yu (Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu) riding by. Back then, Liu was a rough-hewn country man who dreamed of serving in Yu’s army. Later, he humbly applies to the grave, 24-year-old aristo for soldiers to liberate his town where his wife is held captive, and Lord Yu gives him 5,000 men.
This noble gesture allows Liu to free his tortured spouse, and Lord Yu and Liu fight side by side with other warlords against the decadent and despised Qin empire. Their victory in 207 BCE allows Liu, not Yu, to be the first to set foot in the forbidden city of the time, the Qin Palace. Viewers will marvel along with these semi-barbarians at the extraordinary stone palace and its cultural artefacts, including a vast library of historical records written on linked wooden slats, which are delivered in the blink of an eye by an ingenious mechanical system. It may have been the kind of empire that forced “100 minds to think as one,” but how not to shed a tear for the delicate but defiant young Qin emperor, hacked to death in the public square after undergoing excruciating torture?
Trouble is afoot when Lord Yu learns that Liu has usurped his right to be the first to enter the hallowed palace walls. This time it looks like curtains for the peasant commander, yet once again Yu chooses to overlook his faux pas. Too nobly, it turns out, because they end up struggling for power at the head of rival armies.
In the final reels, the underlying theme of commoners who topple an empire becomes more explicit, though the film’s take on contemporary Chinese politics is too veiled for easy comprehension. In any case, noble Lord Yu’s democratic idea of dividing the empire into 19 independently run kingdoms, each speaking its own language, ends in blood.
Another theme is the falsification of history by the victors. Old minister Xiao (Yi Sha), an idealist like Yu, lectures an obedient army of scribes on how General Xin was falsely vilified by history. Xiao was an eyewitness and recounts, Rashomon-style, a very different version of the facts than the one written in the official records. His honesty is punished even more horribly than Lord Yu’s.
Cinematographers Li Zhang and Ma Cheng follow one breath-taking image with another, soulfully underscored by composer Liu Tong. Yet for all its lyricism, the film is remarkably believable in reconstructing a long-ago era lost in poetic mists and long telephoto shots, but still having its own dense reality. Poetic and terrifying at the same time are the armies arranged in orderly files; warhorses flying over the plain; the emperor’s magical candlelit chambers; clouds animated with human figures; a dangerous barbarian sword dance, as the camera slides around the dancers.
With the action shifting back and forth 14 years and the men mostly bearded and wearing heavy armor or elaborate period costumes, there is ample room for the characters to blur. The very fine cast helps keep confusion to a minimum with strongly individualized performances even within the formal confines of the period aesthetic. Ye Liu’s emperor is quaking and terrified, ready to run for his life when danger threatens, yet there is something in this “Son of the Dragon” that towers above the crowd. As his Lady Macbeth of a wife, made to age painfully as the film progresses, Qin Lan shows who wears the pants in the beautifully lensed and edited summoning of General Xin.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival
Production companies: Beijing Chuanfilms Co., Stellar Megamedia Group, China Film Group
Cast: Liu Ye, Daniel Wu Chang Chen, Qin Lan, Sha Yi, Nie Yuan, Huo Siyan, Cuckoo He, Tao Zeru, Li Qi, Qi Dao, Lu Yulai, Hao Bojie
Director: Lu Chuan
Screenwriter: Lu Chuan
Producers: Albert Yeung, Alan Zhang, Yang Ten-Kuei, Zhao Xiaowen, Gu Guoqin, Lu Chuan, Xin Wen
Executive producer: Qin Hong
Directors of photography: Li Zhang, Ma Cheng
Production designers: Chen Haozhong, Lu Tianhang
Editor: Liu Yijia
Music: Liu Tong
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 115 minutes
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