Celluloid Classics: Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor

Bernardo Burtolucci’s films feature a wide array of violence and graphic sexuality, of both men and women. Some of his more explicit scenes are difficult to view because of this, but there is one film that illustrates his magnificent sense of artistry and mode of storytelling. His 1987 film The Last Emperor aced all of his previous films by a mile without the use of gratuitous sex or excessive, bloody violence.

The Last Emperor is the story of Henry Pu Yi, the last of Imperial China’s emperors of the Qing Dynasty, who reigned in his native China from 1908 to 1912. The story is told in flashbacks which focus, in turn, on Pu Yi’s baby years. This was the time he ascended to the throne and the film also details time in the Forbidden City. The movie then progresses to his formative years, when he has learned more about the responsibilities and restrictions of the role of Emperor. Finally, we are shown the years of altercation and violence that came from the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation. The flashbacks return to cover Henry Pu Yi’s time during his forced abdication and political imprisonment by the Chinese Red Army as well as the later years of his life. The film ends offering a brief explanation of his life and times. The whole film explores themes of obligation and alienation from one’s own culture.


One scene in particular that stands out for me is when a teenaged Pu Yi, while carrying his pet mouse, attempts to escape from the Forbidden City. As a cultural icon, the emperor is not allowed to leave the City. Pu Yi demands that the guards open the large gate doors for him. To no avail, he begins yelling and threatening. The nervous doormen risk their lives by refusing their emperor. At last realizing his efforts were fruitless, the emotional emperor sees that he is actually just imprisoned in his own ornate jail, and throws his beloved pet mouse at the oversized gates, killing it instantly but freeing it from the prison its owner suffered in.

The film stars Hong Kong actor John Lone (Rush Hour 2) as the charismatic Emperor Pu Yi. Lone portrays him in a convincing light, balancing his character between an uneasy feeling of being trapped as the cultural symbol of his nation and as a man coming to terms with the power and respect many older generations as well as the  contempt many  of the younger generations have for him. Joan Chen stars as his wife Wan Jung, with the legendary Peter O’Toole as Pu Yi’s teacher and mentor Reginald Johnston.

Burtolucci tells his epic two hour and 45 minute tale using a wide array of tools that reinforce authenticity and beauty. Shot within the actual Forbidden City with the approval of the Chinese government, The Last Emperor boasts a painfully real production set complete with intricate artworks and artifacts. The costuming for dozens of speaking parts and thousands of extras is charming, like an extravagant social event. Director of photography Vittorio Storaro captures seamlessly the youthful expressionism in Pu Yi’s early years and the drained feeling of the entire nation after the fall of the emperor. This is set against the Oscar winning, culturally themed soundtrack created by Ryûichi Sakamoto, Cong Su, and David Byrne.


In all, the film earned nine Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture 1987, Best Director (Burtolucci), Best Costume Design, Best Music, and several more. The film is highly honored in the cinematic community, receiving spine number 422 in the revered Criterion Collection. As well as three Golden Globes and three BAFTAs. Make sure to check this one out.

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