“Kings are made, not born.”
It’s a provocative thesis for any story, especially since the same debate about kings has played out over centuries’ worth of world history. Unfortunately, filmmaker Lu Chuan largely decided to take a “tell, don’t show” approach with The Last Supper, which depicts the last gasp of China’s Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han dynasty and its commoner-turned-emperor.
The Last Supper is actually the second recent Chinese historical epic to chronicle the period between the fall of the Qin dynasty and the dawn of the Han dynasty. (And the second one I’ve gotten a chance to review, following White Vengeance.) This one focuses heavily on Liu Bang (Liu Ye) and begins in 195 B.C. At this point, Liu — the humble peasant who became the first emperor of the Han dynasty — is 61, but looks about 20 years older. He has become a paranoid old man haunted by recurring nightmares about his two greatest enemies.
There’s Lord Yu (Daniel Wu), the impressive nobleman leading the rebellion against the preceding Qin dynasty. Lord Yu helped Liu rescue his wife (Qin Lan), and the duo fought side-by-side until Yu was betrayed by one of his soldiers. That would be General Xin (Chang Chen), who surreptitiously turns on Lord Yu and helps Liu capture the Qin palace.
Chuan is both the writer and director of The Last Supper — a reference to the Feast at Hong Gate, not the famous painting by Leonard da Vinci — and the filmmaker has constructed a nifty framing device to tell the story. The action alternates from 195 BC with an increasingly addled Liu to 12 years earlier when he first crossed paths with Lord Yu in 207 BC. The film touches on some intriguing ideas about the way history can literally be re-written. (The emperor has scribes who record everything at his disposal, and Empress Liu conspires to have certain key figures and events removed or altered.) Too bad the storytelling often feels quite muddled, an issue that Chuan must have recognized because he inserts helpful captions that identify each major character. The director also mixes in some subtle jump cuts that lend some scenes a fragmented quality, which I enjoyed because a lot of what we’re seeing are the recollections of a raving, elderly person.
The biggest problem, however, is that Chuan blatantly “yada yadas” parts of the story that are absolutely essential. For example, we see Liu and Lord Yu bond, but when it’s time to show us their crucial estrangement — the thing that would cause Liu to turn on the man who helped save his wife — Chuan only gives us some tossed-off voiceover narration from Liu about the two men drifting apart over the years. It’s a similar predicament with General Xin, who should be the crucial third prong in the main trio but is mostly an afterthought until the film’s final act. (And forget about getting any insight into why he would turn on Lord Yu or align himself with Liu.)
Even Liu himself — a character that should be fascinating — is basically an enigma. The Last Supper gives us little in terms of showing us what made him an uncommon commoner capable of rising all the way up to become emperor. The most we get is (again) some hazy voiceover narration about how Qin palace awakened an unquenchable thirst for power inside any man who entered. It’s a shame because Ye is actually pretty terrific as the man who would be emperor. He shows us the character’s faults (he’s a womanizer and occasional drunk) and failings (the actor is equally great playing the emperor as a paranoid old man); Ye is so charismatic, I wish he’d also gotten a chance to show us Liu’s greatness. I was likewise impressed by Lan’s striking, severe work as Liu’s empress. She honestly made more of a mark than Wu or Chen. Both actors are magnetic on camera, but are given far too little to do as Yu and Xin, respectively.
Much of The Last Supper has a similarly striking quality to it. Despite being billed as a “martial arts saga,” the little swordplay we get has more of a graceful, dancer-ly quality to it. (The big battles are another thing this movie “yada yadas,” though at least that can be chalked up to lack of resources.) The production design is also top-notch. I just wish that, instead of lavishing all his attention on ornate costumes and period-appropriate props, Chaun had dared to show us more about what made these people tick.
The Last Supper is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 21 mpbs. As I said earlier, the production/costume design is certainly one of the highlights of this film. While I wouldn’t say this Blu-ray offers extraordinary fine detail, it’s certainly good enough to appreciate all the time and care that went into capturing the period. In fact, the image’s slight dullness/grayness appears to be intentional, particularly for the darker, later scenes with the older Liu. There are a few captivating, yellowish panoramic scenes early on, but the film never spends enough time on the battlefield to make these sequences impactful. Most of the 116-minute running time is spent in the darkened emperor’s court and Qin palace — not to mention the crucial Feast at Hong’s Gate — each of which brings black levels to the forefront. There’s strong shadow definition at play here, even if the black levels overall could’ve been inkier.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin track rumbles to life immediately thanks to some stampeding horses on a battlefield. It’s an aggressive introduction to what is overall a full-bodied track. The subs make a thunderous reappearance during a brief, impromptu thunderstorm during Liu and Lord Yu’s first meeting. The surround sound field is largely occupied by Liu Tong’s grand score, sometimes at the expense of more natural, atmospheric sounds. The track may not be the most nuanced you’ll ever hear, but it absolutely makes an impression. There is no English language dub available.
The Last Supper looks consistently phenomenal. However, I found the film unnecessarily hard to follow and connect with for reasons that didn’t have to do with the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin.
If you go in expecting some sort of action-packed epic, you’re likely to be disappointed. The film is best enjoyed as a sumptuous drama about scheming and palace intrigue…as long as you’re ok with skipping the parts that explain why the characters are double-crossing one another.