The Last Emperor: Review. By Joe Muldoon.
Of all the films of Bernardo Bertolucci’s illustrious career, The Last Emperor marks his most maximalist and ambitious work, and one I personally believe to be his finest. An adaptation of the autobiography ‘From Emperor To Citizen’ by ex-emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, The Last Emperor documents the privileged and ultimately tumultuous life of China’s final emperor (the eleventh and final monarch of the Qing dynasty). Though the 163-minute theatrical cut (which Bertolucci himself reputedly preferred) is the standard version, I watched the mammoth 218-minute extended cut, and so will be the cut discussed here.
Following a 5-year stretch in custody after having been captured by the Red Army, the film opens with the attempted suicide of Pu Yi (John Lone), ex-Emperor of China. We are then taken back to 1908, when a toddler Pu Yi (Richard Vuu – this remains his only-ever film role) is called to the Forbidden City by Empress Dowager Cixi. There, the toddler is informed that he is to become the next emperor – not that it means a great deal to the toddler, who is more interested in playing, as all toddlers do – and the Empress swiftly dies thereafter.
With a quietly crumbling empire suddenly at his feet, the young Emperor is confined (if not imprisoned) solely within the grounds of the imperial palace, and experiences a lonely childhood despite being surrounded by subjects and servants at all times. Worth mentioning here is that Bertolucci’s portrayal of the doomed ruler is often disproportionately sympathetic, omitting many instances of Pu Yi’s cruelty towards his court eunuchs.
Diplomat and scholar Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole, in a role that was criminally snubbed of an Academy Awards nomination for Best Supporting Actor) is hired in 1919 to give the increasingly Anglophilic young Pu Yi a Western-style education, and it is here that some of the film’s greatest performances are delivered; Wu Tao (as a 15-year-old Pu Yi) and O’Toole complement each other wonderfully, their chemistry coming across as genuine.
Jumping back and forth amongst the most pivotal events of the Emperor’s life, we witness his disastrous attempts to rule within the Forbidden City, his exile to Tientsin following the 1924 Beijing Coup, his marriages to Wanrong (fabulously played by Joan Chen) and Wenxiu (Vivian Wu), his decadent life as a playboy, his capture by the Red Army during the 1945 Soviet invasion of Manchuria, and his subsequent imprisonment at the ‘re-education’ Fushun Prison.
At the 60th Academy Awards, The Last Emperor went on to sweep all of its nominated categories, winning a staggering 9 Oscars overall (including the coveted Best Picture award) – by the time the end credits begin to roll, no doubt is left within the viewer that these awards were wholly deserved. That the film beat Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun in every nominated category is testament to the brilliance of The Last Emperor.
An absolute odyssey of a film, it is as intriguing visually as it is storywise. Having been granted unprecedented and almost unfettered access to the Forbidden City by the Chinese government, the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro is utterly breathtaking, magnificently capturing the exquisite beauty of the sprawling palatial grounds. Ultimately, Bertolucci’s masterpiece is an epic elegy towards a sometimes tragic (and sometimes despicably cruel) individual, towards a man whose great power was never over his own destiny.
By Joe Muldoon
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