Tuesday 15 September 2020

Movie Review: The Last Emperor (1987)

A historical epic, The Last Emperor is the biography of the last man to occupy an extravagant but obsolete role during turbulent times.

In 1950, former Emperor Puyi (John Lone) is a prisoner of the Chinese government, accused of collaborating with the Japanese enemy. He arrives for interrogation at a prison in Manchuria, and his life story is recounted in flashbacks.

In 1908, Puyi is not yet three years old when he is summoned to the Forbidden City and appointed Emperor by the dying Empress Dowager Cixi. Eunuch servants look after his every need, but by the time he reaches his teenage years, China is a republic and the young Emperor is a disempowered and forgotten presence strictly confined to the Forbidden City.

Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole) arrives from Britain as a tutor, and Puyi attempts some reforms by clamping down on corruption among the eunuchs. He also selects a wife Wanrong (Joan Chen) and a mistress. In the mid-1920s he is evicted from the Forbidden City and relocates to the coastal city of Tientsin. He lives the playboy life and gradually falls under the influence of the Japanese imperialist regime, which is harbouring ambitions to militarily and economically dominate China, starting with Manchuria.

Independently produced by Jeremy Thomas, The Last Emperor was provided with unique access by the Chinese government to film on-location in the Forbidden City. Director Bernardo Bertolucci creates a visually beautiful, immersive and often stunning tapestry of an isolated time and place existing outside the realm of concurrent events. While the mammoth 163 minutes offer no shortage of artistry, the subject matter is unworthy.

At best, Puyi naively allowed his title and presence to be exploited by the Japanese. At worst, he collaborated with a murderous expansionist regime against his own country. Either way, he lived an entitled life utterly detached from his people, until his capture, imprisonment and reprogramming. None of this is the fault of a child plucked from his mother and appointed Emperor before he was potty trained, but an unsympathetic character who achieved little of note makes for a poor choice at the centre of an epic.

Meanwhile, history passes by on the margins of the film. Mammoth events shaping China are barely noted and largely unexplained, leaving the film bereft of both a rewarding core presence and meaningful context. The pacing is predictably ponderous, and the first hour is particularly laborious, essentially consisting of Bertolucci's cameras chasing a toddler around. As a travelogue of a hidden China the film always offers something to look at, but it's a struggle for any semblance of a plot to emerge.

The final two acts are much better. Bertolucci sets aside the fascination with the Forbidden City and the film moves on to the adventures of a young man surrounded by a useless entourage, living a lavish lifestyle and creating an almost too-good-to-be-true target for the Japanese to influence. The interrogation scenes also build momentum, starting with an intimidating search for the truth by Puyi's captors but navigating towards a surprisingly nuanced attitude towards rehabilitation as defined by the state.

A fine artistic creation at a grand scale, The Last Emperor paints with loving detail on an exotic canvass, but this Emperor really had no clothes.

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