The Last Emperor

"Good"

The Last Emperor Review


Toy trucks and accessorized dolls are common props of the wide-eyed two year-old's wonderment. While Puyi, who was appointed China's last emperor at that tender age, might have substituted fine silk curtains for plastic as he explored the Forbidden City -- toddling the breathtaking, empty rooms and splashing in bathtubs -- the veil of childhood was quickly lifted to reveal a solitary life of duty and responsibility. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor deals with many false truths, but the most disappointing is that the film, itself, doesn't live up to its grandiose individual efforts.

Despite its bold opening of Puyi's attempted suicide as a prisoner in a reeducation camp in his late 50s, The Last Emperor is your standard biopic, complete with the framework of the aged character telling the story of his life. Of course, Puyi's peculiar childhood is the most interesting half of the two-and-a-half-hour film, and it's there where Bertolucci's grip on the material is the strongest. From the seven-year-old Puyi's desperation to connect with the mother he was separated from six years prior to the teenage Puyi's pet mouse. Bertolucci's poetics seem to transcend the film's immaculate design and execution. It helps that the material is inherently interesting -- we are all bound by duty in some regard and are constantly looking for an escape. Still, Bertolucci takes chances, even shocking us with a seven-year-old Puyi nestling in his mother's bare bosom or the pet mouse meeting its demise against the Forbidden City's gate at the hands of a frustrated Puyi. These are not mere exploits, however, but sad moments where it's clear that Puyi's childhood and foreshadowed adulthood needs and desires are controlled by others.

As Puyi ages, the film loses its grasp on the struggle of young Puyi's emotional hang-ups and, instead, focuses on adult Puyi's political turmoil. Without the focused sympathy of Puyi's inability to escape the Forbidden City, his duty, or himself, there is little to hold our interest after the two-hour mark. Bertolucci attempts to cover too much ground telling us about the duality of China's view of Puyi's involvement with the Japanese rather than showing us.

The most interesting segments of adult Puyi's life come in the form of faux propaganda clips that emphasis the populist view of the last emperor. Bertolucci somewhat abandons the flashback narrative of the first half for a more linear narrative -- weaving the past politics into Puyi's present imprisonment. Had Bertolucci juxtaposed the flashbacks of young Puyi's struggles of being trapped by the duty within the Forbidden City walls against those of adult Puyi's entrapment by his public image in a reform camp, he might have been able to transfer the sympathy of young Puyi to his older self. Yet the two are clearly different segments, with little to do with each other. And that separation cuts us off emotionally from Puyi as an adult.

Though The Last Emperor has its faults, it achieves visuals in the tradition of larger-than-life Hollywood classics (for which it won copious Oscars, including Best Picture). Bertolucci's camera swoops through the imperial throne room of the Forbidden City with a steady hand. What the film accomplishes in design is staggering. It's the film's saving grace when the thematic bottom drops out around hour two's completion. We never question the integrity of the historical moment in the film, but we do question our patience.

The four-disc DVD from Criterion offers an audio commentary featuring director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto. A second disc include the 218-minute television version of the film (which Bertolucci was required to complete; it's not a director's cut). A bevy of additional featurettes and supplements comprise discs 3 and 4.



The Last Emperor

Facts and Figures

Run time: 163 mins

In Theaters: Friday 15th April 1988

Budget: $25M

Distributed by: Columbia Pictures

Production compaines: Hemdale Film Corporation, Recorded Pictures Company, Soprofilms, TAO Film, Yanco

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 52 Rotten: 5

IMDB: 7.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Producer:

Starring: as Pu Yi, as Reginal Flemming Johnson, as Wang Jung, as Big Li, Ryuichi Sakamoto as Amakasu, Ruocheng Ying as Governor, as Chen Pao Shen, Maggie Han as Eastern Jewel, as Interrogator, as Chang, Fumihiko Ikeda as Yoshioka


Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

45 Years Movie Review

45 Years Movie Review

Like an antidote to vacuous blockbusters, this intelligent, thoughtful drama packs more intensity into a...

Straight Outta Compton Movie Review

Straight Outta Compton Movie Review

This biopic gallops through the career of groundbreaking gangsta rappers N.W.A, working its way through...

We Are Your Friends Movie Review

We Are Your Friends Movie Review

Basically the perfect summer movie, this lightweight drama has a great-looking cast and plenty of...

Sinister 2 Movie Review

Sinister 2 Movie Review

As the ghoul from the 2012 horror hit stalks a new family, this sequel's sharply...

Advertisement
Paper Towns Movie Review

Paper Towns Movie Review

After setting the scene with vivid characters and some insightful interaction, the plot of this...

Vacation Movie Review

Vacation Movie Review

Both the characters and the tone have been updated as a new generation of Grizwolds...

Trainwreck Movie Review

Trainwreck Movie Review

Amy Schumer makes her big screen debut with a script that feels like a much-extended...

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Movie Review

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Movie Review

Adopting a deliciously groovy vibe, Guy Ritchie turns the iconic 1960s TV spy series into...

Advertisement