“The Last Emperor” (1987)

 “The Last Emperor” (1987)

By Lucas Battista

Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ruocheng Ying, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Maggie Han.

Bernardo Bertolucci has always excelled at injecting his projects with a grandiosity reminiscent of films like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Ben Hur.” “The Last Emperor” is by no means an exception, serving as a long recount of the life of the Manchu Dynasty’s last emperor, Puyi, and by extension, a look into the tumultuous and bloody history of twentieth-century China.

The film is beautifully littered with waves of the Guzheng and Pipa everywhere (both Chinese instruments), that clash against a more Western string orchestra. The story itself derives its strength from Puyi’s life, serving as a backdrop for China’s more recent history to be projected onto, with Puyi himself representing the fractured empire personified, deceived and defrauded by enemies from both within and outside the walls of the Forbidden City. At the end of the film, a phantom Puyi muses on the fact that it might seem inconceivable to any passerby that he once sat on the Dragon Throne only 70 years prior, now the subject of tourists within the palace.

A fine job is done of encapsulating the absurd societal hurdles China has made, depicting court dancers before Puyi all the way to the red guard’s dance amidst the cultural revolution, with all periods wrought with immense terror and suffering, redressed with a new coat of paint despite an unchanging, violent core. Although Puyi never truly was the helmsman of any state, having lived to parrot the words of others all throughout his life, at the film’s conclusion we see that he finally speaks what he means, fulfilling a statement his British teacher, Reginald Johnston, makes earlier in the film — “If you cannot say what you mean, Your Majesty, you will never mean what you say and a gentleman should always mean what he says” — finally becoming his own emperor, in a modest, human way.

Speaking of “Lawrence of Arabia,” Peter O’Toole as Johnston is such an unexpected but welcome appearance, and he really doesn’t fall short of depicting a stiff-collared no-nonsense Englishman. One of my biggest gripes with this movie, despite how beautifully shot, acted, and staged it was, is its questionable handling of history, that at times seems to exonerate Puyi and gloss over many of his real-life monstrous actions. It really doesn’t touch on how awfully he treated the palace eunuchs as a child, and it doesn’t depict his testimony at the Tokyo trials. Nonetheless, I think it succeeds in capturing the forcefulness of change in twentieth-century China with a generally powerful message: that history is often a reframing of the same events to be repeated over and over.

Related post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *