The Last Emperor (1987)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: John Lone, Joan Chen and Peter O'Toole
Plot: The story of the final Emperor of China.
Genre: Biography / Drama / History
Awards: Won 9 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound.
Rating: NC16 for some sexuality, violence, and mature themes.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: YES)
It is interesting to note that the Chinese authorities rejected Queen Elizabeth II’s request to visit the Forbidden City during her state visit to China in the late nineties. Who could be more important than the Queen? The answer is Bernardo Bertolucci.
One of Italy’s most critically acclaimed filmmakers, Bertolucci has been making films since the early sixties. His best works are also his most controversial including The Conformist (1970), Last Tango In Paris (1972), and Novecento (1976). Critics are entitled to argue that The Conformist is arguably his masterpiece. But it is The Last Emperor that finally got him the Oscar for Best Director that he deserved.
The Last Emperor’s sweep of nine Oscars is made more astonishing because it is quite rightly the first large-scale (and Western) film production ever to be shot inside China’s most grandeur cultural landmark. The result is a film of incredible scope and beauty.
The story spans more than five decades, depicting in detail the miserable life of Pu Yi (John Lone) who was made emperor at an age of three. Confined within the four walls of his palace for most of his early life, he sought to explore the world outside.
Bertolucci paints Pu Yi against the backdrop of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in which he was regretfully involved as a “puppet emperor”, and the political uprising of Maoism that would eventually cause widespread famine and economic backwardness in his country. Pu Yi’s most enriching relationship is the one with his English tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole) who empathizes with his situation but is largely helpless in a foreign land.
Bertolucci tells Pu Yi’s life story in two narrative threads: a tracing of his life when he was an emperor, and his capture and interrogation by Chinese authorities over his role in Japan’s invasion. Both threads are interwoven together quite excellently such that they remain relevant vis-à-vis each other and move the story along with a consistent pace.
The artistic direction is outstanding, in particular the first act when the scenes are shot in the Forbidden City, the highlight of which is the “coronation” sequence. Bertolucci uses lush and rich colors, spectacular wide shots, and thousands of extras, allowing the sense of occasion (and location) to naturally overwhelm the viewer into a wide-eyed disbelief that these are all accomplished without CG effects.
In the film, Pu Yi is twice prevented (by his guards, and much later, Japanese guards) from venturing into “the world outside”. Huge doors are shut in his face as he frustratingly comes into terms with a life that is akin to an enclosure of sorts, with his term in prison thereafter rubbing salt into an already wounded wound. The final act, which by then he has aged considerably, Pu Yi is released from prison. Is this the fruit of freedom which he could finally taste?
A visit to his ancestral home, now a commercially-exploited tourist site, brings painful memories of the past. He meets a young boy and hands him something symbolically rooted in tradition but one that the latter (as a representation of future sons of China) could never hope to understand. When that young boy finds out what it is and looks up, Pu Yi is gone. His exit is unceremonious, his passing a fleeting moment unwarranted in history. His life in a physical and emotional enclosure now becomes an eternal one.
Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s beautiful and captivating theme comes in, stirring our emotions as it describes with a deep sense of loss, a turbulent past that continues to haunt a great country. The Last Emperor is, without a doubt, a stunning milestone in cinematic history, and one of the best films to emerge from the late eighties.