Film: The Last Emperor

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Film:

The Last Emperor

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
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Genres:
Distributor: Live / Artisan

Bernardo Bertolucci does the nearly impossible with this sweeping, grand epic that tells a very personal tale. The story is a dramatic history of Pu Yi, the last of the emperors of China. It follows his life from its elite beginnings in the Forbidden City, where he was crowned at age three and worshipped by half a billion people. He was later forced to abdicate and, unable to fend for himself in the outside world, became a dissolute and exploited shell of a man. He died in obscurity, living as a peasant in the People’s Republic. We never really warm up to John…

Reviews

Amazon.com

Bernardo Bertolucci does the nearly impossible with this sweeping, grand epic that tells a very personal tale. The story is a dramatic history of Pu Yi, the last of the emperors of China. It follows his life from its elite beginnings in the Forbidden City, where he was crowned at age three and worshipped by half a billion people. He was later forced to abdicate and, unable to fend for himself in the outside world, became a dissolute and exploited shell of a man. He died in obscurity, living as a peasant in the People’s Republic. We never really warm up to John Lone in the title role, but The Last Emperor focuses more on visuals than characterisation anyway. Filmed in the Forbidden City, it is spectacularly beautiful, filling the screen with saturated colours and exquisite detail. It won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. —Rochelle O’Gorman

Everything that was good about the 163-minute theatrical release of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in 1987 is even better in this new 218-minute director’s cut. By contrast, much that was peculiarly distant and lifeless the first time around isn’t really better or worse in this edition. Conclusion: the net gains are considerable if you invest time to appreciate Bertolucci’s full feeling for the odd story of Pu Yi, China’s final monarch. You remember the saga: taken from his mother at the age of three, Pu Yi is brought into the enclosed walls of the Forbidden City to replace the real emperor. There he becomes a pampered prisoner and hollow symbol of an older monarchy that has since given way to a ruthless, 20th century republic. With his pining loyalists beheaded or kept at bay by armed soldiers outside the City’s walls, Pu Yi is tutored by an English gentleman (Peter O’Toole) and wed to a kindred spirit (Joan Chen). Eventually cast from his gated paradise, Pu Yi (wonderfully portrayed in adulthood by John Lone) becomes, by turns, a playboy, a dupe to the Japanese, and a victim of China’s cultural reforms and re-education programs. This longer cut largely top-loads the film with greater reason to feel compassion for the emperor, with his often wordless sense-adventure in the mysteries that could only be known to one little boy plunged into indecipherable alien decorum, robbed of self-determination and common sense by his infinite privilege. Added scenes (including some in the political rehabilitation camp where Pu Yi is held for a decade) fill out not so much added facts as density of experience. This improved The Last Emperor is richer in soul and a pronounced sense of Bertolucci actually directing this film in the most personal and profound sense. —Tom Keogh

Barnes and Noble

Bernardo Bertolucci’s lush telling of the life and times of “Henry” Pu Yi (John Lone), China’s last emperor, is an old-fashioned epic in the tradition of Lawrence Of Arabia, a history lesson, and an art-house film rolled into one. The result? A classic movie that garnered eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the film follows Pu Yi’s metamorphosis from pampered royal to free-thinking rebel to everyman citizen of the People’s Republic. Standout performances include Peter O’Toole as the Scottish tutor who teaches Pu Yi about the outside world and Joan Chen as the beautiful young woman whom Pu Yi marries. Bertolucci, himself a Communist, wants us to believe in the film’s gray, Mao-suited present tense, but the swooning beauty of the flashbacks stands as its own rebuff. Granted access to the Forbidden City (the first Westerners to be so honored), Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro created a visually stunning film, with rich, sensuous images that evoke a vanished world. Rachel Saltz

Related Works

Book:From Emperor to Citizen

From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi

Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi

From Emperor to Citizen is the autobiography of Pu Yi, the man who was the last emperor of China. A unique memoir of the first half of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of one born to be an absolute monarch, the book begins with the author’s vivid account of the last, decadent days of the Ching Dynasty, and closes with an introspective self-portrait of the last Ching emperor transformed into a retiring scholar and citizen of the People’s Republic of China.

In detailing the events of the fifty years between his ascension to the throne and the final period of his life as a quiet-living resident of Beijing. Pu Yi reveals himself to be first and foremost a survivor, caught up in the torrent of global power struggles and world conflict that played itself out on the Asian continent through many decades of violence and upheaval.

This firsthand description of the dramatic events of Pu Yi’s life was the basis for the internationally acclaimed 1987…[more]

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