The Last Emperor

Bernardo Bertolucci’s visually ravishing spectacle about the life of Pu Yi (1905-1967), the last Chinese emperor, is a genuine rarity: a blockbuster that manages to be historically instructive and intensely personal at the same time. Pu Yi (played by three children at ages 3, 8, and 15, and by John Lone as an adult) remained an outsider to contemporary Chinese history for most of his life, being confined to the Forbidden City for 12 years, seeking assistance from the Japanese after he was ousted in 1924, and winding up as the puppet ruler of the new state of Manchukuo in the early 30s; after Japan’s surrender in 1945, he spent five years in a Siberian prison camp and nine more as a political prisoner of the People’s Republic of China before he was released as an ordinary Chinese citizen in 1959, ending his days happily as a gardener and researcher. Interestingly, Bertolucci uses Pu Yi’s remoteness from China as an objective correlative of our own cultural distance as Westerners (virtually all of the dialogue is rendered in English), and, with scriptwriter Mark Peploe, brilliantly employs a dialectical flashback structure that shows Pu Yi’s life from the vantage point of his “reeducation” in the 50s. Working with an elaborate system of visual and thematic rhymes to tell his mainly melancholy tale of solitude, Bertolucci is interested in charting nothing less than the gradual substitution of the state for the family, which describes the history of today’s China as well as that of its central character–although two key agents in this process are the father figures of his Scottish tutor (Peter O’Toole) and the kindly governor at the Chinese prison (Ying Ruocheng), the latter of whom helps to effect what Bertolucci has described as a “forced psychoanalysis.” While the plot bears some resemblance to the late period films of Kenji Mizoguchi, the overall spirit is closer in many respects to the TV documentaries of Roberto Rossellini. The result is one of Bertolucci’s best films to date–a solid advance on the operatic excesses of his 1900, and a haunting meditation on the processes of history. (Biograph, Chicago Ridge, Oakbrook, Ridge, Old Orchard)

This entry was posted in Featured Texts. Bookmark the permalink.