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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