1,500 SLAVES. 353,260,000 ROYAL SUBJECTS. WARLORDS. CONCUBINES. AND 2 WIVES. HE WAS THE LONELIEST BOY IN THE WORLD.
In the late 1980s, the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci was decidedly an international filmmaker, having made movies in France and the United States. That year he was in touch with the Chinese government and agreed to direct a film about Puyi, the man who was China’s last emperor. Bertolucci would gain unprecedented access to the Forbidden City in Beijing, the place where Puyi grew up. Reportedly a Marxist, one would think that Bertolucci might have turned The Last Emperor into Chinese propaganda, but the film is hostile to all kinds of authoritarianism.
A political prisoner in China
We first meet Puyi (John Lone) in 1950 when he’s a political prisoner in the quite recently Communist China; he was captured years earlier by the Red Army during the invasion of Manchuria. As he faces intense questioning after a failed suicide attempt, Puyi remembers how he was taken to the Forbidden City in 1908 as a very young boy, having been selected by the dying Empress Dowager as her successor. Puyi grew up in a place where he was frequently told that he was the ”Son of Heaven” and that he could do whatever he wanted. But the child’s only friend became his wet nurse and he was never allowed to leave the Forbidden City.
At the age of ten, he learned that China no longer was a monarchy; the 1911 Revolution happened without his knowledge. As a teenager, he made a new acquaintance in the shape of a British scholar, Reginald Johnson (Peter O’Toole), who became his mentor and broadened his education. In 1922, Puyi married Wanrong (Joan Chen), but their relationship would never become happy…
Examples of flawed authorities
As we follow Puyi’s life, from childhood to his years as an aging, anonymous worker in Mao’s China at the start of the Cultural Revolution, we encounter several examples of governance that all fail the people. The monarchy that Puyi is forced into is inhuman in many ways, destructive (as well as ridiculous) both for the ruler and his subjects. In the 1920s, Puyi becomes a playboy who collaborates with Japan, a nation with aggressively imperialist ambitions that considers all of Asia its own territory. And then finally, we have the Communists, forcing its citizens into labor camps, making them confess to non-existent crimes and treating innocent people like enemies of the state.
In Puyi’s life, there’s oppression wherever he goes and he’s initially part of it; his marriage and relationship with a secondary consort are hardly the result of a healthy attitude toward women, sexuality or the idea of family. At the same time, Puyi is a remarkably helpless character; things are always done to him, he’s rarely an active agent. There’s still drama to spare and Lone is fine in the lead, illustrating a balance between nobility and lack of authority; O’Toole doesn’t really have much to do in his role as the tutor, but still exudes enough charisma to stand out.
Bertolucci as director and co-writer makes the film thoroughly engrossing, an emotional history lesson in the shape of a traditional epic that begins and ends with the same throne in the Forbidden City, a place that is fascinating to see in the film.
The costumes and production design are equally overwhelming and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro finds the right perspective at different times, such as scenes where a two-year-old Puyi discovers and plays with all the opulent traditions of a court celebrating its new emperor. The score is a wonderful collaboration between Chinese, Western and Japanese flavors, as represented by Cong Su, David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto, with the latter’s stirring contributions the most memorable.
The Last Emperor 1987-Italy-Britain-China. 165 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jeremy Thomas. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Screenplay: Mark Peploe, Bernardo Bertolucci. Book: Puyi (”From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Puyi”). Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro. Editing: Gabriella Cristiani. Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, Cong Su. Production Design: Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Costume Design: James Acheson. Makeup: Fabrizio Sforza. Cast: John Lone (Puyi), Joan Chen (Wanrong), Peter O’Toole (Reginald Johnston), Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun… Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Trivia: Sean Connery was reportedly considered for the role that O’Toole came to play. Future director Chen Kaige has a small role. Also available in a 218-min. version.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Screenplay, Original Score. BAFTA: Best Film, Costume Design, Make-up Artist.
Last word: “It was quite brave of them to allow the sequence of the Red Guards. It’s a bad memory. My Chinese collaborators on the film had all been in prison. When I was there in 1984, the people one talked to were not sure the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution was over. They were still cautious. When I went back for the eight months when we were doing the picture, things were completely changed. The caution was gone.” (Bertolucci, The Los Angeles Times)