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Film Review: The Last Emperor (1987)

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The Last Emperor (1987), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Rating: [star rating=”4″ max=”5″]

A remarkable life

For someone with almost no hold over his own fate for the majority of his sixty-one years, Aisin-Gioro Puyi (愛新覺羅·溥儀), the last emperor of China, led a remarkable life. From the time he was chosen to be emperor by the dying Empress Cixi aged two years and ten months, to becoming the puppet emperor of Manchukuo under the control of the Japanese in the 1920s and his subsequent “re-education” at the hands of the newly-empowered Communists, his life can be seen as the backdrop against which the great power struggles of early 20th century China raged.

Yet though he was, in name, the Son of Heaven, around which all human affairs should have revolved, the power that Puyi held was an impotent one. His was a life of passivity in the face of the real power of others. As Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and the various players of World War II fought to change the course of history, Puyi was left to dream about the restoration of a dynasty that had already been confined to the past despite him. He may, whilst living in the Forbidden City, have had 1500 eunuchs whose sole purpose in life was to do his bidding, but any means by which he could influence the direction of world affairs would forever be beyond him.

The Last Emperor, then, is as much a film about China’s transition from monarchy to People’s Republic as it is about Puyi himself. It is a fascinating moment in history, one perhaps best appreciated with some background of, or at least interest in, the events on which it is based. To witness Puyi’s journey from his ascension to the throne in 1908 to his life as a humble gardener under Communist rule is intriguing enough. To witness this with some appreciation of the larger narrative in which that journey is based, is to maybe bring a potentially remote subject back towards some greater reach of meaning.

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The two-year-old Puyi sits on the dragon throne at his coronation

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Some of the 19,000 extras used during the film kowtow to new emperor outside the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City

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Peter O’Toole stars alongside Tao Wu as Puyi’s tutor Reginald Johnston

On location

Still, the film makes spectacular viewing whichever way you look at it. Filmed on location inside the Forbidden City, with special permission from the Chinese authorities, the first half of the film is as authentic a look at what life may have been like inside those walls ever put on screen. With 19,000 extras kowtowing, worshiping, overthrowing and dancing their way through sixty years of Chinese history, The Last Emperor can be seen, if not as a perfectly articulated character study, at least as the perfect accompaniment to a visit to the Forbidden City itself.

The film won nine Oscars, including one for best picture and best director for Bernardo Bertolucci. Given that the movie was made with the approval of the Chinese government, it is unsurprising that nothing too controversial came to pass. It is neither a character assassination nor a warts-and-all study. In fact, Puyi is shown for much of the movie as the isolated, naive, and despite everything, still excessively proud man, that by all accounts he was in real life. Only towards the end does his sense of entitlement give way to an acceptance, and maybe even an appreciation, of his new life as an ordinary citizen.

Essential China viewing

The fact that the real-life Puyi is said to have been as impotent in the face of women as he was politically, and had little or no interest in sex, didn’t prevent an adolescent fumble under the covers from being included, when a deeper exploration of the reality would have been far more interesting. Puyi had no children, and as he himself wrote of the first four of the five wives that he had during his life, “they were not real wives and were only there for show.” Still, if emotional depth and the ability to connect with Puyi as a character is lacking somewhat from The Last Emperor, this is entirely in keeping with accounts of Puyi the man.

The Last Emperor is an essential film for Sinophiles and anyone that has visited or has plans to visit Beijing. Puyi led a remarkable life, and in its own way, The Last Emperor is a remarkable film. It is ambitious in its scope and stunning in its depiction of palace life. Though it may benefit from some background knowledge, for those of us with at least a passing interest in all things China, it can only peak the curiosity and encourage us to find out more about this fascinating moment in Chinese history.

Where next?

–     There is an excellent documentary about Puyi and his historical situation on YouTube entitled The Last Emperor of China.

–     Check out Puyi’s autobiography From Emperor to Citizen for a an account of Puyi’s life in his own words.

–     Get the DVD off Amazon here.

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The Hall of Supreme Harmony as it is today

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