The Last Emperor (1987)

The Last Emperor (1987)
  • Time: 160 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
  • Cast: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole


A dramatic history of Pu Yi, the last of the Emperors of China, from his lofty birth and brief reign in the Forbidden City, the object of worship by half a billion people; through his abdication, his decline and dissolute lifestyle; his exploitation by the invading Japanese, and finally to his obscure existence as just another peasant worker in the People’s Republic.


  • A contrary-motion dramatisation. That’s not to say that it simply employs a to-and-fro present-and-flashback approach to its storytelling (which it does). Rather the drama always seems balanced, teetering on the edge of resolution but never getting there.

    So: the king is chosen and even his father bows before him. He is omnipotent. He is also two, incapable of even understanding his situation. As he finally reaches an age where not only comprehension but action – autonomy – is possible, he gets sidetracked by puberty. Finally in his prime, fit to rule, there is no empire left, just the ghosts of provinces (a panning shot of Manchuria is like the opposite of the closing optimism-pregnant vista of Once Upon A Time In The West).

    Bertolucci’s achievement is in humanising Pu Yi’s otherworldly upbringing, showing the pathos of a destiny that eludes him by a single step before vanishing forever in a puff of modernity. The episodes are told with humour and mix of detail and an old-school opulence (19,000 extras cumulatively?) that dazzles. There is some good acting – John Lone is OK – and some fine acting Ruocheng Ying, as the Governor. There’s also some dangerously Olympian acting from Peter O’Toole as the tutor RJ, no stranger to such an epic cross-cultural biopic and who comes dangerously close to stealing the movie even with relatively modest role. The score is excellent, the costumes and makeup breathtaking. What really makes this movie though is the extraordinary locations without which (a modern version of) Bertolucci would have had to have used CGI to attempt the same spectacle. Unique, moving 8/10

  • It is interesting to note that the Chinese authorities rejected Queen Elizabeth II’s request to visit the Forbidden City during her state visit to China in the late nineties. Who could be more important than the Queen? The answer is Bernardo Bertolucci.

    One of Italy’s most critically acclaimed filmmakers, Bertolucci has been making films since the early sixties. His best works are also his most controversial including The Conformist (1970), Last Tango In Paris (1972), and Novecento (1976). Critics are entitled to argue that The Conformist is arguably his masterpiece. But it is The Last Emperor that finally got him the Oscar for Best Director that he deserved.

    The Last Emperor’s sweep of nine Oscars is made more astonishing because it is quite rightly the first large-scale (and Western) film production ever to be shot inside China’s most grandeur cultural landmark. The result is a film of incredible scope and beauty.

    The story spans more than five decades, depicting in detail the miserable life of Pu Yi (John Lone) who was made emperor at an age of three. Confined within the four walls of his palace for most of his early life, he sought to explore the world outside.

    Bertolucci paints Pu Yi against the backdrop of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in which he was regretfully involved as a “puppet emperor”, and the political uprising of Maoism that would eventually cause widespread famine and economic backwardness in his country. Pu Yi’s most enriching relationship is the one with his English tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole) who empathizes with his situation but is largely helpless in a foreign land.

    Bertolucci tells Pu Yi’s life story in two narrative threads: a tracing of his life when he was an emperor, and his capture and interrogation by Chinese authorities over his role in Japan’s invasion. Both threads are interwoven together quite excellently such that they remain relevant vis-à-vis each other and move the story along with a consistent pace.

    The artistic direction is outstanding, in particular the first act when the scenes are shot in the Forbidden City, the highlight of which is the “coronation” sequence. Bertolucci uses lush and rich colors, spectacular wide shots, and thousands of extras, allowing the sense of occasion (and location) to naturally overwhelm the viewer into a wide-eyed disbelief that these are all accomplished without CG effects.

    In the film, Pu Yi is twice prevented (by his guards, and much later, Japanese guards) from venturing into “the world outside”. Huge doors are shut in his face as he frustratingly comes into terms with a life that is akin to an enclosure of sorts, with his term in prison thereafter rubbing salt into an already wounded wound. The final act, which by then he has aged considerably, Pu Yi is released from prison. Is this the fruit of freedom which he could finally taste?

    A visit to his ancestral home, now a commercially-exploited tourist site, brings painful memories of the past. He meets a young boy and hands him something symbolically rooted in tradition but one that the latter (as a representation of future sons of China) could never hope to understand. When that young boy finds out what it is and looks up, Pu Yi is gone. His exit is unceremonious, his passing a fleeting moment unwarranted in history. His life in a physical and emotional enclosure now becomes an eternal one.

    Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s beautiful and captivating theme comes in, stirring our emotions as it describes with a deep sense of loss, a turbulent past that continues to haunt a great country. The Last Emperor is, without a doubt, a stunning milestone in cinematic history, and one of the best films to emerge from the late eighties.

    GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)

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