In The Last Emperor, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has found one of the remarkable true stories of the 20th century, yet it is one that may not be familiar to Western audiences. It is the life of Pu Yi, the final imperial ruler of China.
At the age of 3, in 1908, Pu Yi was declared the Lord of Ten Thousand Years and the Son of Heaven. He was ensconced in the lavish Forbidden City in Peking, a walled group of palaces where he was pampered by an army of women and eunuchs. Like the emperors before him, he would rule China absolutely.
Except that the China outside the Forbidden City was changing. The 20th century overwhelmed Pu Yi; first the war lords reduced his power, then the Japanese came and installed him as a puppet ruler of Manchuria. After the war he was arrested by the Red Army, which imprisoned him and “re-educated” him. Eventually freed, he survived until 1967, when he died a simple gardener.
Bertolucci, who wrote the script with Mark Peploe, sees the awesome possibilities of this strange life, and he has mounted this film with all the grandeur of a David Lean super-production. Filmed entirely in China, including the Forbidden City itself, The Last Emperor features an eye-popping array of magnificent locations and costumes (photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro). Some scenes required thousands of extras, all dressed in rich period clothing.
While Bertolucci satisfies the epic requirements of such as story, his finest moments come in the human details. Bertolucci has always followed the individual journey within overpowering socio-cultural events (Last Tango in Paris, 1900), and here he peels away the ornate exteriors to find a peculiar person. To borrow the title of another Bertolucci film, it is the tragedy of a ridiculous man.
Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone, the excellent actor from Iceman) is not himself an epic character, one of history’s great men. He is not even all that likable. Rather, he is made pathetic and tragic by the events that happen to him. Throughout his life, Pu Yi goes complacently along with whatever is happening at the moment. He enjoys servants slaving for him, accepts having both a wife (Joan Chen) and an official concubine (Ying Ruocheng), and is willing to aid the Japanese so he can return to power.
Thus it is moving when, at a Communist parade at the end of the film, Pu Yi finally extends a sympathetic hand to someone who had been fair with him. When he does, a Maoist marcher angrily tells the Lord of Ten Thousand Years to “Get with us or —- off!” This time Pu Yi pulls back, choosing to (literally) tend his own garden. In the final scenes he seems to have found some small measure of self-knowledge.
With a passive hero, Bertolucci smartly allows other characters to energize different sections of the film, such as Pu Yi’s English tutor (Peter O’Toole) and the two women in his life. Still, some sections in the middle of the movie flag a bit, although the device of telling most of the film as a flashback from the Communist prison (where Pu Yi still has his shoes tied by a servant) gives the early scenes a layer of poignance—we already know the sad downfall of this poor pawn of history. The remainder of the film wrestles with the unexpectedly touching question: What do emperors do when there are no more emperors?
First published in the Herald, December 1987
I always felt a little more respect than passion for this movie, until I saw it a few years ago in a super-long version, when it looked completely rich and sensual and mesmerizing. Even working on an epic scale, Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, with all his peculiarities. The movie won nine Oscars and led Bertolucci to make his classic acceptance speech remake about Hollywood being “the big nipple.” Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, etc.