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The Last Emperor

We turn now from the biggest financial hits of 1987 to the biggest awards-earner of 1987. The Last Emperor picked up nominations in a whopping nine Oscar categories — including Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography — and walked away with the award for every single one of them. Additionally, this movie is notable as the very first one shot on location in the Forbidden City in Beijing, with the blessing of the Chinese government.

The film is a biopic of Puyi, a relative by marriage of the Empress Dowager Cixi. In 1905, the Empress Dowager — then on her deathbed — chose Puyi to succeed her as the monarch of China. So it was that Puyi came to power, just shy of his third birthday at the time. The rest of the film follows Puyi through various life stages (and various actors as well), up until shortly before his death in 1967.

The Cliff’s Notes version: The dynastic Chinese Empire of antiquity came to an end in 1911, with the establishment of the Republic of China. Puyi was forced to abdicate in the process, and his position as Chinese Emperor became purely ceremonial without any real ability to govern. Now powerless in the outside world, “Emperor” Puyi was unable to leave the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, the early days of the Republic were ruled by anarchy, as warlords and bureaucrats fought for control throughout the country. Inevitably, Puyi and his two wives were forced into exile, seeking asylum with the Japanese Embassy.

Meanwhile, the Japanese had taken over Puyi’s native Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese War. They established the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932, with Puyi in place as its Emperor. Despite his attempts to regain any kind of power, Puyi was little more than a figurehead for the Japanese government until Hirohito’s surrender to the Allied Nations on August 15, 1945. Puyi abdicated (again) and attempted to flee, but was captured by Russian forces the next day.

Eventually, Puyi was repatriated to China, which was then under the Communist rule of Mao Zedong. He subsequently spent ten years in a prison for war criminals until he was declared reformed. Puyi went on to live as a repatriated Chinese citizen until dying of kidney failure and heart disease in 1967.

As a non-fictional story, this is captivating stuff. As a movie, The Last Emperor quickly reminded me of such mid-20th century historical epics as Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and Ben-Hur. By that, I mean the film was made with masterful camera work, sterling sets, gorgeous costumes, and armies of extras; but without much regard for things like efficient pacing. Seriously, this movie is over two-and-a-half hours long, and it still managed to gloss over a ton of details. If I hadn’t done some research after the film, I’d never have known such important plot details as why Puyi was chosen to be the next emperor. Though I think that may be part of the point.

The crux of Puyi’s presentation in this film is that even though he’s theoretically the omnipotent and infallible ruler of all China, Puyi is presented with constant reminders of just how finite his power really is. He spends his entire life coping with the fact that despite all promises to the contrary, he’s only a pawn being played by greater forces. Puyi grew up with thousands of servants kowtowing to his every whim, yet those same servants won’t let him leave his own house. He later tries to enact sweeping change through his palace, and some of Puyi’s more traitorous servants respond by burning half of it down. He tries to take control of his own homeland, demanding Manchukuo to be seen as a sovereign and independent nation, only to find that he’s under the thumb of Japan. I won’t even get started on how Puyi’s menage-a-trois marriage blows up in his face.

Basically, Puyi goes through the entire movie trying to gain the kind of power he was promised as a boy. He wants absolute power on his own terms, free from demands or threats from anyone else. The problem, of course, is that power doesn’t work that way. Nothing good comes without a price, and there’s no such thing as power without responsibility. Moreover, the ancient Chinese concept of a monarchy had become obsolete in the 20th century. By that point, pretty much every nation in the world had switched to some variation of democracy or communism, two systems of government that (in theory, anyway) were founded on concepts of equality. The most powerful countries were no longer those which had the strongest leaders, but those which had the strongest and most united citizens. With so many changes happening worldwide, it was only a matter of time until the Chinese Empire fell.

This brings me to the movie’s other prominent theme: Change. The film opens in 1950, with Puyi (played as an adult by John Lone) in the war criminals’ prison. From there, the rest of the story is told in flashback, with scenes at the prison to serve as a framing device. In this way, the movie sends an implicit message that everything we see in the flashbacks is ancient history. In only a few short decades, it will all come crashing down.

By a similar token, the movie explicitly paints the Forbidden City as a bastion of centuries-old tradition. Puyi is made to live in a time capsule, protecting the ancient Chinese way of life from outside influences. Yet this is ultimately a losing battle. China is irreversibly changing, and influences of the West grow increasingly difficult to ignore. In fact, Puyi grows up with a Scottish tutor (Sir Reginald Johnston, played by Peter O’Toole), who brings a distinctly western perspective to the proceedings. And lest we forget, Puyi is himself a child. Of course he’s going to be fascinated by anything new, in spite of being surrounded by great monuments and relics that have lasted for ages.

The traditional costumes, culture, and ceremonies of China are very prominently showcased in the movie’s first hour or so. The presentation is done with so much wonder and reverence that it’s almost like watching a kind of magic at work. Compare that to the end of the film, when we see marching and dancing in the street to honor Chairman Mao. There’s a similarity, to be sure, but the movie makes it feel like an imitation of something more pure. The Chinese ceremonies only half a century prior had a kind of decorum and pride that the commies just couldn’t recapture. Even if the ways of old may have been outdated and obsolete, there was something intangible to them that’s now gone forever.

A huge part of this presentation is in the cinematography. The Forbidden City and all its exotic spectacles are shot with luscious golds and reds. The scenes are brightly lit, and the camera is often placed in such a way that we can see how awesomely huge the Forbidden City is. Compare this to the more modern settings, which are shot with a color palette that would have been right at home in Saving Private Ryan. I’d also add that scenes often change color partway through a shot. Sometimes this is effective (the fire at the storehouse, for example), and sometimes it’s incredibly melodramatic (a few scenes in Manchukuo come to mind).

Overall, the visuals in this movie are staggering from top to bottom. I was lucky enough to see the Criterion Blu-Ray edition on a big screen TV, and it’s easily the sort of movie that merits such treatment.

Regarding the actors, I only have a few small notes. With one notable exception, the film was cast entirely with Asian actors, which I’m sure was part of the reason why the Chinese government cooperated with the film’s production. It certainly does help make the movie feel more authentic, though it does come with some ill side effects. Because this is an English-language film and some of the actors clearly don’t speak English as a first language, there are quite a few awkward line deliveries here and there. The only white person in the cast is Peter O’Toole, and his performance is of course brilliant. I’d also add that he works very nicely as an audience surrogate through a good portion of the film.

Really, I’m fascinated that this movie got made to begin with. A movie cast completely with Asians, with only a single older white veteran actor in a supporting role, directed by an Italian? I’m amazed Hollywood agreed to greenlight this, let alone that the Academy graced it with so many accolades. Even today, when Hollywood companies are tripping over themselves to kiss China’s ass, it’s hard to believe that any major studio would have made this film without cramming a name actor in there somewhere.

That being said, The Last Emperor totally holds up. Not only is it an engrossing character study of a fascinating historical figure, but the production design is thoroughly gleaming with polish. The visuals in this movie are nothing short of divine, and the film’s presentation of ancient Chinese rituals must be seen to be believed. That said, this is a 160-minute movie, and the pacing is such that you’re going to feel every second ticking by. This is not the kind of movie that one watches for leisure, just as no one unwinds from a long day of work by watching Lawrence of Arabia.

This is the kind of movie that takes a commitment. The kind of movie that demands your full and undivided attention for the day. Yet in the end, if you’re up for that kind of effort, it’s definitely worth it. This is undeniably a movie worth all of the Oscars it won.


  1. Ping from Joshua:

    Would you say that you enjoyed this film more than the director’s previous film ‘Last Tango in Paris?’
    I certainly think so.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Without question. I absolutely HATED “Last Tango in Paris.” In fact, I had completely forgotten the two films were made by the same guy.

    Thanks for reading!

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