A long time ago, the evil Empire held hostage countless lives. With the fate of the future in the balance, one man joins the Rebel Alliance and realizes his destiny. And through a mysterious power known as the Force, he becomes the scariest old man ever.
The man once known as Liu Bang became Emperor seven years ago, but he is now severely weakened and probably on the verge of death. Yet, even on death’s door, he is paranoid that people around him are trying to kill him. Yet, when presented with the severed head of his last great enemy, his relief is tempered with a serious dose of guilt and shame. For his empire was founded on the blood of two enemies who used to be his friends: one of them was the former owner of that severed head. The other was Lord Yu…also dead.
It is around fourteen years earlier, and 48-year-old Liu Bang is a low-class low-level officer whose village was taken over by soldiers of Qin, the first Imperial Dynasty. Liu and a few other men have made it to a town under the control of anti-Qin rebels. He meets with Lord Yu, a 24-year-old aristocrat who has been leading thousands of warriors against the Empire. The men around the young Yu do not trust Liu and decide to kill him and his men. The ensuing brawl is about earn a bodycount when Yu intervenes and, instead, gives Liu 5,000 troops to liberate his village. A surprised, but grateful Liu returns home and frees his people. This includes his wife and children. His wife, Lü Zhi, is not exactly happy to see him. Granted, his first words to her is blaming her for spreading rumors about him (calling him a dragon’s son) that made Lord Yu’s men distrust him did not help. Sure, she was imprisoned and received some noticeable injuries to the top of her head, but that is not the point. It turns out that, during his time away, she learned that he had had an affair with a widow and sired a son. After the widow died, Lü Zhi adopted the boy. This would not be the last time that she and the children get kidnapped, nor the last time that he is unfaithful.
After having officially joined the ranks of the rebels, Liu becomes an important military figure. As the rebellion is on the cusp of victory, Liu and his troops race towards the Imperial Capital, beating Lord Yu’s forces to conquest. He enters the palace, captures the young Qin Emperor, and makes himself at home. Well…it turns out that Lord Yu is not happy about being beaten to the punch. He is also not happy with the thought of Liu having entered the palace. Eventually, Lord Yu’s forces make it to the capital. While Liu is busy having fun, his army is scattering and his ministers are desperately gathering what they can. Liu is informed of Yu’s arrival and is able to exit the palace in time and return to his military camp, but he is still pretty much trapped by Yu’s forces.
Without any actual proof that Liu had entered the palace, Yu decides to invite Liu to a banquet at his military camp. It is pretty obvious to Liu that it is a trap, but he has no choice. So he goes and…yes, it does seem like Lord Yu is trying to kill him. After what seems like an eternity, Liu manages to escape from the tent and the camp. Soon, Lord Yu takes over the palace, with the intent of destroying it. His plan is to split up this new Empire back into kingdoms with their former cultures and languages. Liu even is allowed to be a king. Of course, by now, that is not enough for Liu. And, obviously, he takes back the palace and the Empire for himself a few years later. That victory, however, does not bring happiness. It appears that his own treacherous ambition makes him suspect treacherous ambition in others, especially in those closest to him. This paranoia follows him up through his reign.
The Last Supper, originally called The King’s Feast, is about the founder of the Han, China’s first real Imperial Dynasty. Yes, the Qin was the first Imperial Dynasty, but fourteen years is not that long and the main ethnic group in China are not called the Qin. One would think that a Chinese movie about the founder of one of the nation’s greatest dynasties would be a glowing one, a movie about how a lowly peasant (“from Pei County”) was able to beat the odds and bring glory to his people. Instead, it is a movie about a man who betrayed those who had helped him and whose lust for power set off a wave of needless violence that continued even after his death.
That the English translation of the title has Christian connotations was not lost on the director…nor on the actor who originally suggested the translation. However, there is no Jesus in this movie; the closest to that would probably be the young Qin Emperor, but only because he is brutally tortured. The main character could be considered Judas, and he sees others like him everywhere. The events took place around 200 years before Jesus, by the way.
This movie is really a Chinese movie, not necessarily in terms of style, but in the sense that it presumes that the audience knows a little something about this point of Chinese history…or at least believes to know a little something. As a result, the movie follows a path based more on emotion than on narrative coherence. The movie never reveals why the Qin had taken over Liu Bang’s village in the first place. The few times that battle are shown, it can be difficult to tell what is going on. The flashbacks are shown out of order and several important details are either held back for a long time or revealed long before they are relevant. Either you are already familiar with the material or you accept that it is not important to this particular story. This movie is not concerned with depicting history, but of questioning the depiction of history. There is even a scene about two-thirds of the way through where characters are discussing how to present what has happened for posterity. Ancient Chinese historiography loved promoting the legends. It does have chyrons that say people’s names and sometimes their stations, so that is something. Still, it can be very confusing if you get hung up on the narrative. It is not really a story of what this man did. It is a story of a man who is haunted by the various things that he did, but is unable to admit remorse and unwilling to seek redemption.
When I first watched the movie, I thought that it was less of a historical drama than it was the eeriest gangster movie ever. On the other hand, a lot of (Western?) reviewers thought that there were parallels to MacBeth, which I can also see, at least with respects to how Lü Zhi acts once she becomes Empress. It is, though, a little telling that the movie gives her the chyron “Empress Liu” just as she is about to be rescued from prison, dirty and having suffered for years. Really, though, it is difficult to watch this movie without thinking of it as a commentary on how politics work, particularly those prone to authoritarianism, violent infighting, and purges. The existence of China itself owes so much to the Han Dynasty, but does that justify how it got there? Did overthrowing the Qin actually make anything better? What happens to alliances when the common enemy appears about to be vanquished? The Qin, known for being brutal and merciless, is pretty much an afterthought in this movie. It is Liu Bang himself who is the villain here. A protagonist who becomes other people’s antagonist. A villain who, for both better and worse, set a civilization on a new path. That scene that I mentioned in the previous paragraph is obviously about historical revisionism, which was (and maybe still is) an issue with the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese government must have noticed that along with other parallels, and held back this movie for around four months.
Even if the plot itself may come across as difficult to follow, what really got to me was the atmosphere. Everything in this movie oozes with doom, even in scenes where little actually happens. A dying Liu Bang seems ghost-like, his spirit haunting the palace and willing to take as many people with him to the afterlife. And his ghost still haunts the people of Han…
WTF ASIA 51: A Bittersweet Life (South Korea: 2005, approx. 119 minutes)
WTF ASIA 52 – with Guest Contributor Future ex-Mrs. Malcolm: Billa (India: 2009, approx. 155 minutes)
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