Last Emperor, The (1987)
Release Date: November 18th, 1987 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Actors: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Maggie Han, Ric Young, Wu Jun Mei, Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa, Jade Go, Lisa Lu
n 1950, on the Chinese-Russian border in Manchuria (the People’s Republic of China), war criminals are herded off a train and into a dimly lit waiting room, instructed by a gruff voice booming over a loudspeaker. One of the captives is the last emperor of China, Pu Yi (John Lone), who draws unnecessary attention when other prisoners bow to him where he sits. Although he manages to escape into a bathroom before any guards can discover his identity, his panic (and subsequent suicide attempt) introduces a series of flashbacks to his childhood.
In 1908, Peking, the compassionate, respectful, and long-living Grand Empress Dowager (dubbed the Old Buddha) summons toddler Yi to her palace in the Forbidden City. With her dying breath, she proclaims that the child will be the new Lord of 10,000 Years, the Son of Heaven, the Imperial Highness. But the three-year-old boy has no interest in a life of royalty. Despite nonstop attention and a bevy of servants at his constant disposal, all he really wants to do is to go home.
When Yi is seven, a republic is formed, with a president in charge, making the young emperor the ruler of the Forbidden City only. And this new government breeds widespread corruption, warlords, and political chaos. In 1919, Reginald F. Johnston (Peter O’Toole) arrives as the new tutor, instructing Yi on how to be a gentleman – and how to come to terms with his powerless situation. In 1924, with parliament dissolved in what Yi assumes is just another coup d’etat, the emperor is ousted from his home by armed soldiers. Finding controversial friends in Japan and residence in Tientsin in 1927, Yi becomes a playboy, buying countless American cars and watches while dreaming of journeying to the West. But when he returns to Manchuria in 1935, after having visited Tokyo, he realizes that his Japanese allies only provided a momentary reinstatement to emperorship (or Chief Executive) to coerce his participation in wresting territory and influence away from China.
With all the elaborate, colorful costuming and hairstyling, majestic sets (and location shooting in the real Forbidden City), and attention to recreating historical details, “The Last Emperor” is a rare look at turn-of-the-century China – from the perspective of mostly English and Italian filmmakers. This is quite obvious in the scripting and the style, particularly with the spoken language remaining in English throughout, as other languages are spoken only when their translations are unnecessary. In many ways, the film serves up the strange traditions of an antiquated people by foreigners for scrutiny – or perhaps ridicule. The customs, which allow the emperor to do anything (and to mistreat anyone); prevent ordinary people from looking at him; dictate that someone else is punished when he misbehaves; and provide him with a wet nurse until he’s seven, are somewhat repulsive by today’s standards. But his situation is also marginally tragic; he doesn’t see his mother for years at a time, he’s not allowed to leave the palace, and he doesn’t meet another child until he’s seven. He’s a prisoner, even if his imprisonment is within a luxurious palace.
“The Forbidden City had become a theater without an audience.” The main intrigue stems from Yi’s recognition of his symbolic role and the outmoded practices of his environment, which he plots to reform. And, in the end, the recognition of his perpetual incarceration, from one building to the next or forced into servitude as puppet leadership from one government to the next. But much of his involvement in social and political changes in a tumultuous landscape are overshadowed by his personal melodramas and romantic entanglements. And despite the smaller notions of individual unrest and betrayal, the film lacks great emotional moments; even when Yi loses his second wife, parts ways with Johnston, or is relentlessly interrogated, none of the characters are able to evoke poignancy.
As with many epics that span nearly three hours, “The Last Emperor” contains a number of pacing issues. The biographical yarn is never boring, aided by the intercutting of chronological flashbacks that highlight significant historical moments alongside the draconian coming-of-age rituals of a small child thrust into an unnatural upbringing, but the sheer amount of scenes and transitions and years covered push the film to its considerable length. With a chronicling of Yi’s abdication, his arranged marriage (to a princess with a covered face, which he sees for the first time on their wedding night – though he gets a secondary consort if his first wife is not to his liking), and his treasonous collaboration with the Japanese to stay in a perceived position of power, the project is an emperor procedural, mulling over all of the duties and processes of imperial life, entitlement, and governmental strategy. But serving predominantly as a history lesson rather than an involving rise-and-fall tragedy, “The Last Emperor” possesses very little lasting power.
– Mike Massie