Set against the richly textured fabric of China, The Last Emperor is both a compelling human drama and a superb history lesson. It is also highly ambitious: seen through the eyes of Pu Yi, the last Chinese emperor, the movie spans more than half the 20th century. It opens in 1950 in Manchuria, where Mao Tse-tung’s Red Army is busily re-educating war criminals—one of whom is Pu Yi (John Lone). Humiliated and despairing, he escapes to the lavatory where he slits his wrists in a basin. Then, in a clever transition, director Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris)—who wrote the script with Mark Peploe—flashes back to the earlier years of the man who came to the Chinese Imperial throne at the mere age of 3 and later witnessed some of the century’s most tumultuous changes.
The first scenes of The Last Emperor are unquestionably spectacular. Bertolucci, cameraman Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti have produced a stunning re-creation of the Chinese court at the time of Pu Yi’s coronation, with masses of extras and huge swirls and gashes of color. And the movie, the first from the West to be filmed inside the so-called Forbidden City at the core of Beijing, achieves the quality that lush, large-scale movies used to have: exoticism.
The story of Pu Yi, a prisoner for
almost his entire life, is itself extraordinary. Denied a childhood by his early ascension to the throne, he grows up under the tutelage of Reginald Johnson, a Scotsman nicknamed R.J. (Peter O’Toole). First, Pu Yi sees China become a republic under Sun Yatsen and cannot leave the Forbidden City. By the time Pu Yi turns 18, a warlord takes over the city and forces him and his two wives (Joan Chen and Wu Jun Mimei) into exile in the northeastern port of Tientsin. When the Japanese invade Manchuria in 1931, they set up Pu Yi as a puppet emperor until the Red Army takeover of 1949. Imprisoned for 10 years, he then returns to Beijing where he works as a gardener until his death in 1967.
Bertolucci succeeds in personalizing that incredible tale. And Lone’s performance gives the role of Pu Yi resounding depth. For all its scope and nearly three-hour length, the movie passes by quickly. But some images, both shocking and touching, stick in the viewer’s mind: the young Pu Yi smashing his secretly kept pet mouse against the gates of the Forbidden City as his wet nurse is taken away from him; and later, on his wedding night, his bride covering his entire face with lipstick from her kisses. Watching the grandeur of The Last Emperor is like taking a stately tour through much of the 20th century— and witnessing one man’s incarceration within it.
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