Movie Review: Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE LAST EMPEROR

Information from the inlay booklet of the audio CD

On a rainy day, 18 years ago, my father took the rest of our family to the Devi Paradise theatre near Mount Road to see Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece Last Emperor. The film was about Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. It had won 9 Oscars. The film had two or three scenes of frontal nudity. Even though I was seated several seats away from my parents, I closed my eyes when these scenes appeared. Recently, I made another one of my hopeless searches for the movie on and found to my surprise that they now have The Last Emperor DVD in their collection! Watching the movie, one may not be able to fully appreciate the movie’s impressive background score (David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto*). One fine day, maybe 10 years after I saw the movie, AIR 107.1 FM played the main title theme from the film’s OST. The music was very mesmerizing. Funny, it didn’t seem so when I saw the picture the first time. The visual opulence of the film drowns the background score’s greatness. For several years after that I tried to get the OST CD from music shops in Madras but none of them had a copy. I made phone calls and wrote emails but no luck. Finally, I managed to get it from an American for whom I used to do some transcription work. The audio CD was out of print in the U.S. and so he bought a second-hand copy from The CD case had a small booklet with a great deal of interesting information about the film.


The Story

Peking, 1908. A three-year-old is removed from his home and his mother and is carried through the night to the Forbidden City, the heart of ancient China. His name is Pu Yi.

Days later he is placed on the Dragon Throne and becomes “The Lord of Ten Thousand Years,” “The Son of Heaven,” ruler over almost half the world’s population. Pu Yi is the Emperor of China and the loneliest boy on Earth. But three years later, in 1912, China becomes a republic, the Qing dynasty is forced to abdicate and more than 3000 years of imperial rule comes to an end.

Almost the only person who does not understand this is the boy emperor. While the convulsive tides of modern history transform the world outside, the strange medieval life in the Forbiden City hardly changes. As Pu Yi grows up surrounded by his high consorts, courtiers and over 1,500 eunuchs, he is still treated as a god, free to do almost anything he wants, except to live the present or to set foot outside the palace. Unwittingly, he has been cast as the leading actor in an elaborate play, performed on the largest stage on earth, in which the other actors are conspiring to keep reality from him. Reality is the Chinese people, they are the audience and they have abandonded the theatre long ago.

Pu Yi (played by John Lone) is 18, married with two wives (one of them played by Joan Chen), when the charade collapses. In 1924, a republican warlord captures Peking and expels the ex-emperor from the Forbidden City. Aided by his friend and tutor, the Scottish mandarin Sir Reginald Johnston (played by Peter O’Toole), Pu Yi flees to Tienstin. For a few years, he enjoys the life of a western playboy before becoming increasingly disatisfied. Now, he is an actor without a role, as well as a without an audience. In 1931 Japan invades Manchuria and Pu Yi makes the great choice, and the great mistake, of his life. He accepts the Japanese invitation to return to the and of his ancestors and becomes the emperor of the new state of Manchukuo. It is the beginning of a nightmare for himself, for China and for the rest of the world which is soon at war.

The last empeor of China is one of the most extraordinary anti-heroes of modern times, an oriental Peter Pan floating like a cork on the stream of history. His life embraces the whole century from the end of the Qing dynasty to the first republic of Sun Yat Sen; from the warlords of the Twenties to the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-Shek; from the Japanese invation to the State of Manchukuo, where Pu Yi becomes a puppet emperor controlled by the Japanese; from the Second World War to the foundation of the People’s Republic; from a decade of Mao’s re-education programmes to the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1959, after ten years in a communist jail, Pu Yi was pardoned. In 1960, he retuned to Peking and become a gardener in the Botanic Gardens, freer in his terms than he had ever been before. For the first time in his life he could bicycle in the streets, eat in a restaurant or ride on a public bus. Traditionally, a Chinese emperor is “the first to sowand the first to leap.” His purpose is to set an example. Perhaps, Pu Yi achieved this at the end of his life when he becomes a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. It was the part he played best.

Production Notes – Background

Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE LAST EMPEROR was filmed entirely on location in Cina in 1986… it took two years of complex negotiations to obtain the unprecedented permissions, which also allowed them to film in hitherto forbidden locations.

… the Chinese gave THE LAST EMPEOR unlimited cooperation… They approved the script, commenting only on factual inaccuracies and demanding no alterations.

The logistics of the production were staggering. THE LAST EMPEROR brought together people from six nations. Actors came from America, Great Britain, China, Hong Kong and Japan to play the 60 main characters in the story. 100 technicians from Italy, 20 from Britain and 150 Chinese worked for six months to put the film on the screen and 19,000 extras, including soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, appear altogether in the immense crowd scenes.

Costume designer James Acheson gathered 9,000 costumers from all over the world. Imperial dragon robes, court dresses and costumes, tunics of the workers and peasants, Japanese army uniforms, Kuomintang uniforms and western dresses fashionable in the Twenties and Thirties were among the many that were bought or made in China and cities far apart as London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Spoleto in Italy and Bighton in England.

Twenty vintage cars, including Delages, Ford Model Ts, Fiats, Lancias, Buicks, Hispano Suizas and Mercedes limousines, plus motor cycleswith side cars and a child’s bicycle for the young Emperor were shippped by the sea to China to appear in the film.

Many weeks were devoted to filming inside the Forbidden City, home for so many years to the ruling dynasties of China… The Forbidden City is one of the most impressive sights anywehere in the world. It stands in the heart of Peking, its 250 acres entirely enclosed by high red walls, some of them 50 feet thick. It has 9,999 rooms (the Chinese believed that only heaven had 10,000 rooms) built around a bewildering jigsaw of courtyards, alleys, and gardens.

* – If you have seen the film Femme Fatale (Direction: Brian de Palma Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijin), then you have already experienced the magic of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s musical score.

† – Pu Yi died in 1962.