Tai Chi 0 and The Last Supper: Both films belong to "official" mainstream commercial production. Yet each in its way is a fascinating occasion to reflect upon Chinese neo-studio system.
Tai Chi 0 (Stephen Fung)
Yang Luchan (wushu champ Yuan Xiaochao), a young martial arts genius, desperately wants to learn the famous secret Tai Chi art of the Chen family. With the discrete help of the Grand Master (Tony Leung Kar-fai), and through repeated beatings from the villagers and the Master's daughter (Angelababy), he comes to master some of the Chen art and ends up helping destroying an evil British steam machine that could wipe out the village for the construction of a profitable railway line.
Tai Chi 0 (the first episode of a blockbuster-to-be trilogy) may well entertain foreign and local audiences: manga anime oriented, displaying a cast of top-models, pop icons and kung fu stars new and old, filled with videogame fantasy high budget special effects, the production probably aims at setting a few standards for the Chinese neo-studio system to please younger audiences. Wild speed, relaxed indifference to dialogs and acting (but is it really an issue?), trendy tricks—including a fake silent cinema sequence (The Artist syndrome?)—and Sammo Hung's choreography combine into a half-enjoyable half-distressing fantasy. Why not.
More intriguing to the benevolent reviewer are some elements of the "plot."The foreigners (the Brits, their railway, their steam machines and their alliance with corrupted Manchu empire) are a threat to the Volk (a clan with its laws and its not-to-be-transmitted-to-outsiders martial art). The westernized engineer (Eddie Peng) has chosen the villains' (foreigners') side because the village rejected him for not bearing the clan's name. The hero (a semi-idiot with a martial arts gift) has to suffer a good deal of beatings and eventually perform a life threatening sacrifice in order to be allowed to "learn." Not enough yet: only because the clan chief's daughter will marry him (thus giving him the clan name) may the man be spared and the story continue for two more episodes. Could the film, under its light-hearted comic book features, fuel a rather brutal definition of people as clan, within a mindset of withdrawal and autarky? One step out of the comedy path and the Chen village would resemble The Prisoner's Village. The predictable "anti-imperialist" plot—the noble driving force of a long line of martial arts films—is here used in a most offhand way, and contains harsh comments upon (and warnings to) those among the Volk who yield to the West (as to the "outside" in general?). Anyway, an archaic set of ideological and storytelling features, and one could say a hardly inventive path if talking of "renewal" of the genre… Better then assess the project in terms of updating if not of re-packaging. The question itself is one good reason to impatiently wait for the second and third episodes.
The Last Supper (Lu Chuan)
Back in time to a famous episode of Chinese ancient history, many times told in literature and cinema (see Daniel Lee's Hong Men Yan, a.k.a. White Vengeance, 2011): the banquet at Hong Men in 206 BC, an episode which still refers nowadays to a feast set up as a trap for the guest. The rebels' alliance that defeated the Qin empire has shattered, giving way to personal ambitions. Aristocrat Xiang Yu (Daniel Wu) is furious: commoner Liu Bang (Liu Ye) alone was is the first to enter the Qin palace in victory. The aristocrat leader plans to murder the commoner. The plot fails. The confrontation between the armies of the one-time partners in revolt leads to the victory of Liu Bang the commoner, becoming the first emperor of the Han dynasty.
Lu Chuan's previous film Nanjing! Nanjing! (City of Life and Death—about the 1937 Japanese massacres and exactions in occupied Nanking) showed his capacity to stage war and violence with moments of true Fullerian inspiration, as well as his firm directing grip in big budget productions.
The director has ideas, points of view, things to say. This is also what made Nanjing! Nanjing! Fullerian at times. This is what makes Wang de Sheng Yan (The King's Banquet a.k.a. The Last Supper) both a glossy mainstream production and a statement. Lu Chuan does manage to make mainstream period commercial film state a few reflections upon Chinese history and politics. It could easily be said that the Han dictator and his empress are clear images of Mao Zedong and Jiang Qing (others being Zhou Enlai or Lin Biao) and that many moments point at the Cultural Revolution or other purges. That the rebellion which starts in solidarity between social classes and ends in power struggle is the story of post-45 China. And even that the curse of any Chinese empire (or regime) is the refusal for diversity (or of any kind of multiparty system). As General Han Xin (Chang Chen) puts it before being executed on the Empress' orders: "The country should belong to those who live in it."
Characters' design, dialogs and obsessive attention to the tiniest twists and turns of the allegiances, of the plots and counter-plots, and to the maturing of weariness among power-thirsty leaders leave little doubt about the image in the mirror here held to Chinese audiences. Yet this in turn is an indication that Chinese directors have a hard time expressing their visions of history and politics out of the conventions of period spectaculars.
But even without trying to over analyse Lu Chuan's intentions, the careful research and philological concern he shows in his representation of Antiquity allow him to subtly develop a powerful sub-theme in his story: how is History written. Various scenes regularly show the imperial scribes, the chief historian of the Palace and the relationships between memorialists and the imperial power. Facts or propaganda, invented or real betrayals, victories or defeats? Can history be "official"? The scenario may be one about power struggle. At a deeper and more original level it is a scenario of the absence of History, the submission of historical accounts to propaganda, the hiding and negation of facts in favour of praise, and the endless rewriting that make the past, the present and the future irremediably illegible. Researching history has been the director's guideline to preparation. Meditating upon the way History is (has been / can be) written in his country may be his real point.
What are the limits of Lu Chuan efforts in "critical mainstream"? Probably in his rather tousled taste for flashbacks following flashes forward plus memory inserts, reminiscence sequences and shifts in time that challenge both the storytelling and the viewers' attention. The camera work and editing give in to many tricks of globalized commercial flicks, from Matrix-like frozen action to jumps cuts and lousy dissolves, wide angle landscapes and crowd scenes loosely combined with handheld camera subjective shots… costumes, make-up and set design—though closer than usual to what archeology attests—still go for fake beards, approximately whitened eyebrows, carefully torn rags and floating curtains… a stylistic disorder that—paradoxically or not—maintains a constant tension, an interesting nervousness. A rage.
Classic Chinese literature has said it all, a long time ago, about power in the Chinese-speaking world. John Woo chose the 3rd century Three Kingdoms for his implacable statement upon the very possibility of unity (Red Cliff). Tsui Hark chose 7th century Judge Di for his meditation upon the fate of intellectuals in times of authoritarian regimes (Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame). Lu Chuan may well have what it takes to join these masters of critical mainstream. Waiting impatiently for the present to happen.