'The Last Emperor' was released in 1987 and was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. To be honest, I don't know a whole lot about this director, who has only produced a couple of movies that I have watched; namely 'Last Tango in Paris and 'Little Buddha'. Both are sumptuous in their presentation but were not highly praised by the critics. This movie, however, was the pinnacle of Bertolucci's career to date, receiving a whopping nine Oscars the year after its release; Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Music (score), Best Picture, Best Sound and Best Screenplay. It's worth noting that this was the first instance in history where a feature film was granted permission to shoot inside the walls of the Forbidden City, a landmark event in the evolution of Chinese culture.
When I reviewed the aforementioned list of accolades, I did notice that there no awards for the actors involved. Initially I was concerned about this, a feeling which was enhanced when I glanced at the cast list. There is only one name on the list which I recognised and that was Peter O'Toole ('Lawrence of Arabia'), who plays Reginald Johnston. The rest of the cast comprise unknown Chinese actors, who had previously starred (pre 'The Last Emperor') in a couple of American TV shows.
This movie is a biopic which, as the title implies, charts the life of Pu Yi, the last Manchurian emperor of China during the closing chapter of the Qing Dynasty. Wrenched from his mother's arms when he was only three years old, Pu Yi's fate was sealed following a decree from the final empresses of the Forbidden City stating he would rule following her demise. At this time the emperor's power was fading, with the Chinese military beginning to seize control of the country. The emperor was nothing more than a symbol of power for the Chinese people, a mere puppet for the generals who really ran things. As Pu Yi grows older and more inquisitive, his high standard of education begins to encourage him to learn about the many countries outside the walls of his palace, where he has remained since his coronation. His new tutor, Reginald Johnston, begins to gain insight into how the boy emperor's life actually is. Inspired by Reginald's knowledge of the outside world, Pu Yi attempts to leave the Forbidden City and quickly realises that he is a prisoner in his own home.
We are then treated to a quick progression of Pu Yi from boy to young man, as he lives within the confines of his splendid palace. With thousands of servants to answer to his every whim, the emperor wants to leave and experience the wonders of the world more than anything else. Reginald realises that the court eunuchs and many other officials have been getting progressively fatter and richer at the expense of Pu Yi's treasury (the country was still supporting the emperor at this time). With China in political turmoil, it's not long before the disharmony of the warring country found itself inside Pu Yi's secluded abode. He is ousted from the palace and although he still retains considerable personal wealth, his status is no more; no longer recognised as a God amongst his people. Over the remainder of the movie we witness Pu Yi's fabulous journey of discovery, as the world begins to tear itself apart with the onset of World War II.
Epic in every sense of the word, this is without doubt a stunning piece of cinematic history. It is rare that movies can produce such a visual feast for the eyes but this one has it in spades. The restoration of the sprawling Forbidden City is simply amazing (not to mention the fact that the crew managed to recreate the Forbidden City in various states of disrepair over a projected fifty year period). The attention to detail is painstaking, with intricate woodwork panelling (which is carved into the trees) and authentic Chinese pottery, decorating the splendour of the Imperial Palace. The costumes are simply stunning; expense and royalty oozing from the silk and jewel encrusted robes. The extravagant nature of the surrounds is treated to stunning cinematography and impeccable direction. Bertolucci frames every shot to perfection, with sweeping and majestic shots containing plenty of activity. This is a master class in direction, sound production and stage control; facets of filmmaking that are oft missing from modern movies. The care which went into this polished production shines clearly from every scene included, with the 19 000 extras adding to the epic and grandiose nature. The dialogue is carefully penned and provides a wonderful contrast between the traditional values of the isolated emperor (and his court) and the emerging culture of a China in the grip of revolution. As the emperor begins to realise the joys of the life outside the confines of his palace, he takes on the mannerisms and attitudes of those around him; fawning to those who may be able to restore him to power, while treating his aides and wives with the contempt of a man still on a throne. As a collective, the cast are simply sublime, with not a poor performance on show. Peter O'Toole does steal the show a little when he is on screen, but this is not surprising as he is the only native English speaker on the cast and so he is free from the sometimes clunky delivery of the script, which other indigenous actors fall prey to. This is minor gripe however and doesn't really detract a whole lot from the capabilities of the Chinese actors to deliver.
While production values are meticulous in their recreation of the various locations and eras which we experience during Pu Yi's voyage, the all important historical facts are also spot on. This was one of the most tumultuous times in Chinese (and indeed world) history and the story is one that everyone will take something from. It is fascinating to witness a country transform from Imperialistic rule to Communism over the course of a couple of hours. For those expecting a period drama full of battle sequences and edge of your seat thrills, then you may look elsewhere. This is an epic biopic and by its very nature, the characterisation of the main players, especially Pyui, is the focus of the plot (which progresses at a nice pace). The opening portion introduces the emperor and develops his character, introducing the pomp traditions and many servants/aides, whom he called family. We get to watch him mature into a young man who, having led a sheltered life, eventually gets to enjoy the freedom and pleasure of the outside world. The political unrest eventually catches up with Pu Yi and also reinvigorates his thirst for power and the will to reclaim what (he believes) is rightfully his. But times have changed drastically in China and although he still retains some traces of royalty, he is merely a status symbol in society. This, coupled with the transformation of China, which ensued during the civil uprising and Japanese invasion, makes for some very interesting viewing. Bertolucci includes a neat sub plot (which opens the movie), which breaks up the main plotline. Obviously not wanted to go into too much detail, I was impressed at how this simple addition added so much to the storyline and prevented the entire piece from becoming slightly one dimensional.
One aspect of the entire production which bothered me was the decision to have the main players speak in English for the duration. While this would have been a perfectly plausible language to introduce as the emperor became educated, it sounds a little silly to have a three year old Chinese boy speak fluently in English. That being said, this is a minor gripe and at the time of filming I'm sure that Western movie goers would not have been too receptive of a subtitled film. This is, however, a connoisseur movie and must be appreciated, like a fine wine (or fine cheese!). There is so much to consume in every scene, with the opulent locations and well constructed shots (such as the infinitely inventive and beautiful “silk sheet” scene), providing enjoyment simply through the act of observing. I have to admit that I did find certain elements of the movie a little slow moving and while the story of Py'ui is most certainly engrossing and interesting, I did find my attention wandering on a couple of occasions. It's almost as though his character (and the secondary characters) simply was not strong enough to carry a movie that almost tips the three hour mark; it's just as though his life was happening to him rather than him actually living it (that being said, Py'ui was a very passive individual). In general I would score this movie as an eight but I have decided to score this movie a little harshly due to my own personal preferences. That being said, I most definitely intend to revisit this movie in a couple of years to see if my opinion has changed. A bone fide classic, this is a must see movie for all fans of modern masterpieces, and one that I was sorry I did not experience on the big screen.
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