The Last Emperor (1987)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenwriters: Mark Peploe, Bernardo Bertolucci
Adapted from: From Emperor to Citizen by Puyi
Cast: John Lone, Joan Chen, Ying Ruocheng, Jade Go, Wu Tao, Peter O’Toole, Wu Junmei, Maggie Han
Nominations: Picture, Director – Bernardo Bertolucci, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Score, Sound
Wins: Picture, Director – Bernardo Bertolucci, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Score, Sound

While the Forbidden City in The Last Emperor is a breathtaking location for the first 90 minutes, the most beautiful aspect of the film is the poetic irony that surrounds the titular character.  Crowned Emperor of China at the age of three in 1908, Puyi was the most powerful person in China until his late teens (the film’s timeline and history differ quite a bit, and since this is about the film, that’s the story we’ll be going with unless noted).  Despite his immense authority, he’s forbidden to leave the Forbidden City—again, irony runs deep—and lives more like a prisoner than an emperor.  Contrasting Puyi’s childhood are scenes of him imprisoned in 1950 as a war criminal for helping the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which was fought concurrently with World War II: The themes of power and impotence are woven so intricately and expertly into every aspect of the film.  Even his suicide attempt, an action a person probably has the most control over, is thwarted.

Throughout Puyi’s life, he fails to appreciate what he has, the opportunities he’s given as emperor, and the privilege he lives with until he’s left with nothing.  Granted, that’s far from a novel concept, but his position in life makes his losses have more tragic undertones.  This in itself is ironic, too, because of Puyi’s social status: Why should we feel sorry for a man who’s had so much handed to him?  Would we feel pity toward a railway tycoon if he lost his fortune?  Not much sympathy was given to financial company CEOs during the 2008 Great Recession.  Puyi didn’t want to be emperor.  It was a position he was thrust into, and as a toddler, no less.  He didn’t build his empire or amass wealth: he was snatched from Manchuria and thrown onto the throne without any regard for his choices, his preferences, his desires.

The film is turned completely on its head had it started after Puyi leaves the Forbidden City.  The fact that we meet him as a child and follow him as he grows up is why we pity him and care about him.  It’s akin to a murderer still being loved by his mother (an extreme analogy, but it illustrates the point).  We see Puyi as our son, so his fall from proverbial grace affects us more than if the film had started with or after his leaving the Forbidden City, when he’s arrogant and self-centered.  His fall would be seen as deserved and just; as it is, this is a man who never had to grow up and take responsibility for anything he’s ever done.  Much like Frank Elgin in The Country Girl, he’s sympathetic and pathetic all at once.

Because Puyi’s life is really just an appearance of power he has no grounding in reality or society.  We’re not shown how or if he does anything remotely related to the duties of an emperor, so it’s presumable that even as Emperor of China he’s nothing but a figurehead; this mirrors his reign as “emperor” of Manchukuo, a puppet state of Japan from 1934 until the end of World War II.  He has his title—which has been shown as having significant importance to him—but again, he has no control over his empire.  Unfortunately, because he doesn’t understand the ways of the world and global politics, he becomes victim to his superficial desire once the Japanese surrender to the Allies in September 1945.

Even though he’s imprisonment by the Communists at the end of the war, he’s been a prisoner his whole life.  As with his lack of power, Puyi’s lack of freedom defines so much of his character: from early in the film, when he’s taken from his family and basically kidnapped to become emperor, to the final scene, when he becomes locked in as piece of Chinese history trivia.  Beyond these narrative components, much of the mise-en-scène emphasizes the theme.  At the simplest, close-ups of Puyi isolates him within the frame; more thoughtfully, so many shots with Puyi have him surrounded by lines that close the right and left sides of frame in on him.  This includes physical walls, pillars, people, flags, and even patterns on a decorative royal carpet.  These are subtle, but they’re ever-present reminders of how powerless and constrained Puyi has been throughout his life.  What good is being given the world if you don’t have the freedom to enjoy such a gift?