Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) chronicles the story of a man unable to break out of his destiny. The Chinese Emperor Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone) receives the throne as a child. “The son of heaven,” he is the most powerful person in the whole nation. He spends his life incarcerated in the Forbidden City, with his behavior controlled by the protocols of his seat. This is a man of tremendous means, but so closely guarded that he is expected to be divine, while not permitted to be human. This is a profound film about the ways political change affects an uncommon man.
It is 1950. Mao Zedong has transformed China from an Imperial state into a communist nation. The bright world of gold and red has succumbed to a drab military green. In prison, Pu Yi is up for trial as a war criminal—and it is here that he tells his story.
Eunuchs train him to be an emperor while he tries to be a child. As a tween, he grows frustrated by the confines of the palace. As a teenager, he marries. As a man, he tries to reform the nation. Through it all, the nation outside his home witnesses a revolution in the midst of war. After recent wars with the Japanese, the Communists rule. Now, as a remolded prisoner, he confesses to countless crimes. He completes his life in a greenhouse, trimming plants and flowers.
Bertolucci’s narratives often seamlessly fit two very different stories together, usually told through two separate characters, as though two lives are intersecting. Most films tend to follow the same plot through separate characters. In Last Tango in Paris, however, we watch the story of a man breaking down emotionally and psychologically, while a woman gets abused in all her social circles. In The Sheltering Sky, one woman seeks something ethereal, while her husband seeks to reunite with her.
This film’s storyline follows the same idea, except that the “characters” are the same person: Pu Yi the emperor and Pu Yi the prisoner. The story shifts back and forth between two periods at parallel moments: He is in prison getting educated according of the narrative of the new China; he thinks back to his classes as a yawning child in the Forbidden City, while the new China forms outside. In the latter, his teachers form him, while in the latter his wardens reform him. His confinement is what binds both these periods together.
Both old and new political orders exude remarkable optimism. In the imperial classroom, Pu Yi learns that human nature is inherently good; the same worldview is taught in prison. Both societies drive themselves through utopian visions. But it is no coincidence that Bertolucci’s film came at the end of the 1980s, when China was on the brink of another change: free markets replacing the communist infrastructure. Thus, the 20th century had three Chinas: imperial, communist, and capitalist.
It is in the midst of this third China that we meet the odd voice of Pu Yi’s liberation. Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole) arrives from the United Kingdom to tutor him by exposing him to the social, cultural, and political norms of the West. Immediately, the conversation seems like the meeting of a man of the world exposing a naive little boy to the ways of life. On a deeper level, though, these conversations illustrate fundamental differences between the three worlds, at least as Bertolucci perceives them. The imperial world elevates an individual to the metaphorical heavens, dresses him in layers of shiny ornamentation and guards him with layers of protection. Such layers, however, separate him from the masses. Though the communist world removes all the pomp, the individual—with the exception of the Chairman, of course, especially after the Cultural Revolution—remains stifled for the sake of the collective.
The capitalist, however, elevates all individuals, and defeats the empire in war. It brings innovation: bicycles and glasses. It also brings a level of ornamentation, which seems subdued compared to what was seen during imperial times. More than that, it brings ethics, compassion, and pragmatism. By comparison, the imperial world seems foolish and the communist world brutally regulated. It wins over Pu Yi through free culture: pianos, tennis, and chewing gum.
Peter O’Toole’s casting in the role as the voice of the capitalist is no coincidence. His role in The Last Emperor—bringing a better world to the apparently hyper-civilized Chinese—is similar to the one he famously played in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), attempting to bring civility to the apparently thuggish Arabs. He is cinema’s great White Savior. And, as is commonly the case with nationalist films, another nation gets vilified. The film clearly loves China, with Bertolucci seemingly fascinated by its cultural riches. In such an exalted context, however, Japanese imperialists unfortunately come off like common, frowning criminals in uniforms, recalling their racist portrayal in many of Hollywood’s World War II films.
Nevertheless, The Last Emperor remains one of the great cinematic epics. Vittorio Storaro’s typically exquisite cinematography deliciously explores the various colors and shades of each of the phases. In addition, Wang Chunpu’s and Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s set design, combined with Maria Teresa Barbasso’s costumes, provide a feast for the eyes rarely seen in Western films.
Amid the ravishing spectacle, Jone Lone’s acting style seems fascinatingly subdued. From start to finish, all the actors playing Pu Yi (Richard Vuu, Tijger Tsou, Wu Tao) present him as simply human, far less complicated than the world around him. By the end of his life, he appears to finally find his bliss neither in the pageantry of his childhood nor in black tuxedos, but as an anonymous gardener. In the final scene of The Last Emperor—one of the great closing scenes of cinema—Pu Yi walks alone through the empty Forbidden City, which is now a museum. As a young scout meets the elder Pu Yi at his old throne, he shares with us something that nobody in his lifetime could understand: a nostalgia for a home that in its day was his locked penitentiary. The great emperor, once seen as the voice of divinity, is now—in line with almost all of history’s pharaohs and kings—all but forgotten. His furniture is now the stuff of museum artifacts, which museum spectators now marvel at, not caring about his personal frustrations. Except for this film, and a few biographies, even in death he is a man who is paradoxically elevated yet ignored.
This essay is in light of the Bernardo Bertolucci’s retrospective at the Castro Theater this Saturday, October 18th. Buy tickets here.