The Last Emperor (1987)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? It came on SBS World Movies while I was cooking dinner.

Cast, crew, etc.

At age 3, Pu Yi ascends the throne of China and becomes ruler of a half billion people who all view him, even though they can’t see him, as a kind of living god. Concealed in Beijing’s ‘Forbidden City’, a city within a city, the young man firstly embraces his absolute power, and then chafes at its restrictions.

As China transitions, as painfully as possible, from an anachronistic feudal state to a modern super power, its Last Emperor is reduced to a figurehead, and then a kind of under-house-arrest embarrassment.

Later he will turn to the Japanese, China’s regional rival, in a misgudided attempt to restore his prestige; a move with violent consequences for his family, and subjects. After World War II he will be tried as a war criminal and counter revolutionary, finally ending up an anonymous peasant in Mao’s communist state.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s lush historical biopic charts this unlikely life story; a remarkable series of ups and downs, reversals, and fateful decisions so far fetched it could only be a true story. Shooting on location in the Forbidden City, the first time this had been allowed, creates an amazing sense of time and place; doubly so when you see how this location went from the emperor’s court (at the movie’s beginning) to a public museum (at movies end).

You think of this kind of change happening over hundreds of years, and here is one person who saw it all in less than a life time. And so: Pu Yi’s return to his former home is a very emotional note to finish on (love the immortal grasshopper as well).

The only thing holding this back, and it does so only a bit, is the acting; John Lone is hit and miss in the lead, and Joan Chen is pretty but wooden as the Empress (although she is giving an acting masterclass here, in comparison to ‘Twin Peaks’). Although these performances are offset somewhat by Peter O’Toole, in his traditional role as The Proper English Gentleman. I also kinda love the guy who screams: IT IS NOT AN ACCUSATION! at the imprisoned former emperor as well.

Art direction, cinematography and costumes are among the greatest in all of cinema, and all won deserved Oscars (the film won 9 overall).

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