Monday, March 14, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Last Emperor

Like all the best things in life, the work of Bernardo Bertolucci is an acquired taste. From the rambling 5 hour epic of 1900 to the turgid beauty of Little Buddha to the explicit sexuality of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci has always produced cinema that challenged the viewers perceptions and wowed them with beautiful cinematography. 
The Last Emperor is perhaps his most complete work and certainly details one of the most compelling stories of recent history. That story is the life story of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last ruler of the Ching dynasty of China. His story is told in flashback, opening with the 3 year old Pu Yi being plucked from his mother's arms to be installed in the Forbidden City as the new Emperor. Though he wishes only to be a boy, and play with children his own age, he is gradually cajoled and coerced into accepting his role as a figure head leader. As China changes to a republic, he is forced to abdicate and becomes a prisoner unable to leave the Forbidden City. Longing to experience the modern world, he takes a wife who shares his own vision for a modern China. However he soon becomes a victim of changed times when he is evicted from his Palace in 1924 by an invading warlord.  He moves to the port city of Tientsin, becoming protected by the Japanese government who have envious eyes on China, and becomes something of a playboy.  By the time of the outbreak of the second world war, Pu Yi has been installed as a puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the invading Japanese forces, forced to sign edicts and collaborate against his own people. Pu Yi is perhaps best remembered today for having started life as an Emperor and finishing it as a poor gardener and Bertolucci manages to tell this rich journey without boring the audience.
Peter O'Toole is excellent, in an important role as Pu Yi's tutor, his only link to the outside world and to Pu Yi an almost otherworldly wise figure. The scene in which he leaves Pu Yi to return home is particularly affecting.  It becomes apparent that he was the closest thing to a friend. This is the tragedy of Pu Yi, thrust into a life he didn't want, he never develops into a proper adult having become used to servants at his beck and call and consequently when called upon to make important decisions as an adult, he errs badly, leading to his own ruin. As his tutor puts it:

"The Emperor has been a prisoner in his own palace since the day that he was crowned, and has remained a prisoner since he abdicated. But now he's growing up, he may wonder why he's the only person in China who may not walk out of his own front door. I think the Emperor is the loneliest boy on Earth."

Winning a total of 9 Oscars upon its release in 1987, this film is a triumph of style married with substance. It was the first film to be allowed access to the Forbidden City and was given a lot of support by the Chinese government with a cast of thousands on show. The beautiful cinematography captures the faded grandeur of the life of a Chinese Emperor in the early 20th Century. The coronation of Pu Yi stands out as one of the best scenes.
In summary, this is a film you really have to see, with sumptuous costumes and  epic crowd scenes, it is the kind of film-making that just isn't done anymore. It helps that the story of Pu Yi is so compelling, travelling a path from being The Last Emperor to a gardener in Chairman Mao's China. That is some journey and it is well worth the 3 hours or so it takes to tell. Epic.

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