The Last Emperor

1987, Movie, PG-13, 219 mins


Originally released in 1987 shorn of a full hour of footage, this fascinating but ultimately passive pageant -- in keeping with its protagonist, Aisin-Gioro "Henry" Pu Yi, tha last emperor of China and a man more acted upon than active -- contains some of Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's most sumptuous visuals. This grand and powerful biography begins in 1908 when, at the age of three, Pu Yi was named emperor of China and follows him through a tumultuous life inextricably intertwined with the history of modern-day China, one that that ended with the once-coddled emperor working quietly as a gardener at Peking's Botanical Gardens. The restored version of the film was completely re-edited by Bertolucci himself.

Told in an intricate flashback/flashforward narrative that uses Pu Yi's communist "remolding" period as its fulcrum, the film opens in 1950 as Pu Yi, and thousands of others, are returned to their now-communist homeland to face rehabilitation. From that point the story moves to Pu Yi's childhood, his imprisonment in the Forbidden City, his term as Japan's puppet emperor of Manchukuo, and his release into the population of China in 1959. Combining the command of the historical epic he displayed in 1900 with the political intrigue and melodrama of THE CONFORMIST, Bertolucci has, in THE LAST EMPEROR, constructed a beautiful film about the transformation of both a man and a country. A storyteller and not a historian, Bertolucci offers two tales in THE LAST EMPEROR--that of China's change, told through a selective sampling of events; and that of Pu Yi's change, told with an emphasis on myth rather than on fact. Moreover, Vittorio Storaro's carefully constructed lighting schemes and moving camera are unmatched by any cinematographer working today. Lone, as the adult Pu Yi, is wholly credible, and Wu Tao, as the adolescent Pu Yi, is every bit his equal. Both actors convey the emperor's innocence, ignorance, and veiled sadistic streak. Chen demonstrates her skill by playing both a radiant teen bride and a rotting opium addict. O'Toole shows more restraint than usual and simply becomes his character, as if he, like Reginald Johnston, would have made an excellent tutor for the emperor. Also worthy of note is the film's score, which combines lush romanticism with traditional Chinese melodies and was written chiefly by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also scored MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE) and David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame). How we wish the film had used a more red-blooded attack on its commentary on blue-blooded privilege. leave a comment

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