Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Last Emperor Movie Review: 25 Years Ago

The Last Emperor was released in New York and Los Angeles 25 years ago last month, but received its wide release in December 1987. So I revisit the film in between the two months. Look for a new 25 Years Ago review later this month when I take a look at Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.

What a strange film is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Twenty-five years later it still has a powerful resonance. It remains a gorgeous visual piece with remarkable costumes, art direction, and set decoration. It helps that the production was given unprecedented access by the Chinese government to film in the Forbidden City. I’m not sure any set could stand in as effectively for the real thing, which is imposing with its mammoth surrounding walls and impenetrable gates that keep the young emperor locked away for all of his youth. But here is a historical epic about a man who is not a hero. He made no great impact on a way of life, or any government, or even a great number of individuals for that matter. Although the story is about the man who happened to be the last imperial ruler of the old feudal China, it is really a historical view of a China in transition to a Republic and then a Communist state, with a passive hero at its center.


Also unlike most epic tales, there’s not a lot of action. Most of the ‘action’ involves the things that happen to Pu-Yi (played as an adult by John Lone) and the ways he’s manipulated, first as a small child on his ascendancy, then as a teenager confined to the Forbidden City for his protection, and finally as an adult who becomes a puppet of the imperialist Japanese in Manchuria. Pu-Yi is almost entirely without agency, making it nearly impossible to sympathize with him. This is problematic for a protagonist. We sympathize with the child taken from his mother at age three. We sympathize again when he’s older and his wet nurse, essentially the only mother figure he’s known, is taken from him. And there’s even some sympathy evoked when he learns the truth, thus far hidden from him, that he is no longer the Emperor of China, which has recently become a Republic. Beyond that he reaches adulthood and rarely takes responsibility for himself even when he’s captured by the Communists late in life and imprisoned in a re-education camp where he can’t even tie his own shoes.

He tries to take charge of his life as a teenager in selecting his wife, whom he chooses from a list of candidates, perhaps because she’s the most beautiful. Joan Chen, with her radiant and elegant beauty, plays her as submissive but strong. When they meet she is significantly more mature than he is. But over the course of their marriage, she remains developmentally stagnant while he tries to adapt to the circumstances around them. She becomes an opium addict and eventually comes to disdain her existence to the point that she becomes impregnated by their chauffer at a moment when Pu-Yi was desperately trying to produce a male heir, an act that would have served only to highlight the futility of Pu-Yi’s station in life by that point.

The movie begins with his imprisonment and flashes back to early childhood. Mark Peploe’s and Bertolucci’s screenplay uses the scenes of Pu-Yi’s later life as a launching point to tell his story. The later chronological scenes become sort of flash forwards without a strong connection to the material presented either in front of or behind each segment. That is until the story catches up with his time in the re-education camp and his eventual release, after which Pu-Yi becomes a humble gardener, perhaps truly happy for the first time in his life.

After his abdication of the throne, there is an attempt to westernize him so that he might fulfill his latent fantasy of studying in Cambridge. During his teenage years he was then tutored by the Scottish Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), who treats him with kindness and respect and, though he continually refers to him as ‘Highness,’ may be the only person in his life to that point who doesn’t kowtow to his every whim. He is a man who holds Chinese culture in high esteem, but apparently fails at bringing any outside perspective to Pu-Yi’s limited experience.

Like most of Bertolucci’s films, The Last Emperor is rife with lush and sumptuous beauty. Vittorio Stararo’s camera moves gracefully through crowds and over the thousands of fawning eunuchs who are the Emperor’s supplicants early in the film. Stararo executed some of his best career work as a cinematographer on this film, and here’s a man who shot Apocalypse Now and Last Tango in Paris. The film won well-deserved Oscars for Stararo as well as James Acheson’s gorgeous costume design and the art direction orchestrated by Ferdinando Scarfiotti. The film is a technical marvel even while I find it now to be slightly inaccessible. But I wonder to some extent if that was part of Bertolucci’s plan. To be sure, Pu-Yi is a central character with such limited understanding of the political movements happening around him, a man so inwardly focused that to observe his life from the outside almost entirely ignores enormous events like World War II. In a way he wanders through life with the same innocence he had as a wee babe climbing the steps to the Dragon Throne until he emerges from the other side of his re-education detention with humility, understanding, and a clear conscience. If nothing else, The Last Emperor makes clear where Bertolucci stood politically even while his protagonist was lost.

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