The Last Emperor is a grand and sweeping epic detailing the final emperor of China’s ascension, abdication, and effective uselessness. It is a interesting look at China as well as the role of its final monarch. Crucial to the picture is its vast and epic scale, with hundreds upon hundreds of extras, and filmed in the Forbidden City itself. I’m ashamed to admit that besides the visual splendor, the most fascinating aspect of the film for me was the insight into a portion of history I know next to nothing about.
Pu Yi (played by John Lone as an adult) becomes the final emperor of China when he was just three years old, and of course could not possibly have any idea of what was going on. As a child, he has fun being the emperor with hundreds of servants to wait on him, but he always wonders when he can go home and see his mother. He is forced to abdicate at age seven, something I didn’t even realize had happened because Pu Yi again doesn’t understand it either. He symbolically remains in the Forbidden City, and can never leave. Though Pu Yi can have anything he wants, and proves it several times, he cannot even leave his home even when his mother dies. It’s a sad and lonely existence for the boy, who is taught to falsely believe that he has the ultimate power and freedom. The only thing he is really king of is the Forbidden City, and the untold amounts of servants who manipulate him.
This mistaken belief that he has power follows Pu Yi for the rest of his life. The film is constructed in a series of flashbacks, stemming from when Pu Yi was taken prisoner by the Communists in the 1950s. As he is forced to recount his tale, we go with him into flashbacks that show it. The film starts off with a meaningful statement about how powerless Pu Yi really is, though he is the former emperor of China and people still bow down to him occasionally when they recognize him, he is still being held prisoner. As all of the former Imperialists are reeducated, his power decreases even further. People are not even willing to make a show of it anymore, as they realize they can be more than servants.
That’s all it was in the first place though: a show. When the previous Empress appointed Pu Yi, it was because the Emperor was assassinated. Times were already changing and Pu Yi never had a chance at real power. Bertolucci uses a lot of curtains in the film, including the yellow one pictured above, to show how in the dark Pu Yi is about this. He pulls the yellow curtain aside, but still all he can see is a lie; a myriad of servants kowtowing to a boy who has no real power, and again, Pu Yi has no idea about any of this. It isn’t until his brother and later a Scottish tutor Reginald Fleming Johnston (Peter O’Toole) come that he is confronted with the truth. It takes someone from outside the city in both cases. A particularly memorable scene with Johnston is when he reveals to the boy why the servants have worked to keep him completely ignorant and “in power:” it’s mainly to save their jobs.
Pu Yi’s story is unquestionably tragic when he is a boy, but as he starts to grow up, he starts becoming more responsible for his actions and it’s a bit harder to feel sad for him. The circumstances surrounding him become clearer as he gets older, signifying that he understands more. However, he is still blinded by the lies he was told as a child, and you can’t really blame him. He sets his sights on ruling China again, and it’s only in the Communist prison that he finally learns to accept that he is an ordinary citizen. It’s a fall that mainly takes place symbolically and in his own mind.
There is a standout part of the film I’ve not talked about yet. While still living in the Forbidden City, Pu Yi takes a wife Wan Jung (Joan Chen) and a concubine Wen Hsiu (Vivian Wu). As they become more westernized living outside of the Forbidden City, Wen Hsiu becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her life and asks for a divorce. It’s a minor point in the movie as a whole, but was very striking just the same. It’s extraordinary to see her gain her independence, while unfortunately everyone else remains trapped. It’s shown symbolically with her refusal of an umbrella; simple, but effective.
The Last Emperor won all nine Oscars that it was nominated for: picture, director for Bertolucci, adapted screenplay, cinematography, art direction, costumes, sound, editing, and original score. All of these are most deserved as far as I can tell; I haven’t seen any of the other nominees from ’87. I can see the length being a problem for some (about two hours and forty five minutes), but it does a lot to keep your attention. The Last Emperor is a beautiful film about a period of history I know little about, and for these reasons I’m really glad I was able to see it.
“I think the Emperor is the loneliest boy on Earth.”
Long story short: 3.5/4