Pu Yi is not even three-years-old when he is chosen to become the Emperor of China, and he is only six when his caretakers abdicate power for him, reducing him to little more than a meaningless political symbol and a prisoner within the Forbidden City. As an adult he allies himself with the Japanese during World War II, a disastrous mistake that lands him in a reeducation camp in Maoist China. Director Bernardo Bertolucci takes this outline of Pu Yi’s tumultuous life and transforms it into an absurdist journey in The Last Emperor, a masterpiece about the loneliness and hubris of believing that we can control our own destiny.
Despite winning nine Academy Awards in 1988 (including the top prize for Best Picture), The Last Emperor isn’t an easy film to love. On the surface it seems like exactly the sort of historical epic that tends to dominate every awards season. It provides ornate costumes, exotic locations, gorgeous cinematography and a protagonist with a front-row view of many of the key events of the 20th century: the fall of the Chinese monarchy, World War II and the Cultural Revolution.
But historical epics are usually about great men who rise from humble beginnings to become larger-than-life figures able to bend history to their will. Lawrence of Arabia set the template, and in recent years the historical epic has merged with the traditional guy flick to give us films like Gladiator and Braveheart, where vengeful male heroes take up arms to overthrow the status quo.
By contrast, Pu Yi (played by John Lone as an adult, and by three child actors during his early years) isn’t much of a hero at all. As a young man he is cut off entirely from the outside world and learns about the political revolutions sweeping through China only from secondhand sources. After being exiled from the Forbidden City, Pu Yi is hungry for the privilege and status he once held, but he never seems to grasp that power and importance don’t go hand in hand. The Japanese are willing to make him the puppet emperor of Manchuria and allow him a cruel pantomime of a coronation ceremony in the midst of war-ravaged landscape. But listening to his political reforms is another matter.
In many ways, the film that The Last Emperor most resembles is Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, another epic in which an uncertain protagonist seeks happiness and comfort but continually fails to understand how to attain them. The key difference between the films lies in the directors themselves: Kubrick viewed humanity with a certain clinical detachment, which made it difficult to ever sympathize with the eponymous character. But a poet like Bertolucci doesn’t have it in him to give us a protagonist that we’re meant to look down on and laugh at. Pu Yi might not possess great foresight or political acumen, but he’s not a helpless fool either.
It’s possible to believe, based on the evidence the film provides, that Pu Yi might have made for an adequate leader under different circumstances. He genuinely loves his two wives, displays an intellectual curiosity at times and is willing to stand up for what he believes is right. Countries have elected leaders based on slimmer qualifications (America included).
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Pu Yi’s privileged existence is that he is almost totally unable to form meaningful relationships with others. The eunuchs and servants who wait on him in the Forbidden City are required to venerate him as a living god, but upon realizing he has no actual power, they steal from him behind his back. Later in life, his Japanese handlers and communist reeducators view him primarily as a PR tool. His marriage to Empress Wan Jang (Joan Chen) begins as a teenage flirtation and eventually deepens into true love, but in the end Pu Yi is humiliated to realize that he cannot protect her any better than he can take care of himself.
His only real friend is R.J. (Peter O’Toole), his Scottish tutor, who is the first (and possibly only) person to treat him as a human being. When R.J. first meets Pu Yi and is told that the emperor cannot be given an academic test, he sternly replies, “That may have to change.” R.J. encourages the emperor to stand up for himself and confront the theft occurring in the Forbidden City, but after the two part ways Pu Yi is left adrift and lonely again.
The Last Emperor suffers from a few flaws. Even at 165-minutes it feels too short, like a greatest hits version of a long and fascinating life. It’s also a bit jarring to see Chinese actors speaking entirely in English; no doubt this decision was meant to make the movie more palatable for subtitle-phobic, English-only audiences, but it undermines the carefully developed sense of authenticity.
This is less of a shortcoming than it would first seem, since The Last Emperor is, at its core, more concerned with poetry than it is with the strict facts of history. Bertolucci knows that Pu Yi’s life in the Forbidden City is a sort of dismal captivity, but he can’t help but make that gilded cage look pretty enticing at times (indeed, the movie was made largely because Bertolucci was the first filmmaker ever allowed access to the location by the Chinese government). He captures the incredible scope and majesty of the Forbidden City, aided by Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography as well as a score by David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su that’s equally mournful and nostalgic. For better or worse, this is only place that will ever feel like home for Pu Yi, and Bertolucci and his collaborators make it seem almost inviting.
In the end, the sad, strange beauty of The Last Emperor is that despite how extraordinary Pu Yi’s life was, his essential tragedy was the same as everyone else. He wanted to believe that he was the master of his own destiny, but events beyond his control kept destroying this illusion and reminding him that all of his best laid plans were worth nothing. He ultimately died a humble gardener, reduced to visiting the Forbidden City as a paying visitor. Maybe it takes a humanist like Bertolucci to see an emperor as an everyman, but anyone who has ever felt humbled by the heartlessness of fate can understand Pu Yi’s plight.
Unfortunately the extras on this Criterion edition of The Last Emperor are a dull slog, consisting of way too many hour-long documentaries on Bertolucci’s thought process while making the film. Likewise, the commentary track, which includes input from Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Marc Peploe and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, is serviceable but a little dry. Maybe the best feature of the lot is the simplest: a 45-minute primer on 20th century Chinese history that puts the events of the film in better perspective.