On the day of the 2016 Taiwan election, police find a mutilated body of a young woman in an apartment. Her naked body has been painted white, and her eyes have been cut out and removed from the scene. Four months earlier, the victim Yang Chieh (Chang Ning) moves into the same apartment – sharing it with a reclusive and anti-social artist Jhong Jiang Ze (J.C. Lin).
The Last Painting is something of a beautiful struggle. On a technical level it is superb. It is aesthetically stunning, with a particularly vivid and effective sense of colour. Its cast are talented and emotionally engaging. In terms of story and meaning, however, it is almost willfully obtuse. Scenes vary wildly from beautifully observed moments of character to painful cliches, with plenty of odd story jumps and confusing omissions in between.
On paper at least the characters seem wafer-thin and rather obvious. The brooding shut-in artist with a tragic past. The idealistic young politics student who gets a sharp lesson in ‘the real world’. The artist’s bitchy and overly sexualised girlfriend. The snarky transgender best friend. Even the set-up feels obvious and contrived: a woman violently murdered, and a jump back to show the lead-up to her death. In all honesty, going by its screenplay alone, The Last Painting is a dismal failure.
It is the execution of the piece that manages to partially save it. Chang Ning gives a lot of depth to Yang Chieh, straddling a line between making her both a sympathetic victim figure and someone who is naive and judgemental to the point of irritation. In that balance between the two Chieh comes away as nicely realistic. The film’s best performance, however, comes from Chieh’s best friend Nana – a transgender young woman played by real-life transgender pop star Kiwebaby. With regular debates going on about the ethics of casting able-bodied actors as characters with disability, or cis-gendered actors as trans characters, Kiwebaby’s naturalistic, charming and ultimately emotionally raw performance is a timely reminder that a performance based on a lived reality is almost always going to deliver the better results.
The film’s aesthetic is innovative and beautiful. The story is separated by chapter headings in which Jiang Ze’s paintings come to life in three-dimensional animations. The physical paintings in-film, which are a particular focus of the story, are genuinely strong and expressive works of art; provided by real-life Taiwanese artist Jhong Jiang Ze (after whom the film’s artist is named). The cinematography is well framed with a beautiful use of colour. Exterior scenes showcase Taipei’s distinctive skyline and architecture wonderfully.
Were it not for the disappointingly weak screenplay and story, The Last Painting would be a smart, stylish and deeply artful drama-come-thriller. The cast are strong, as is the production and design. The understated score by the band Cicada provides a wonderfully absurd self-awareness as they are periodically seen on-screen being the actors. Sadly it really is crippled by the script. So much talent and expertise has been spent on something so annoyingly wrong-headed.