The Last Emperor Movie Review
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.