Richard Vuu in The Last Emperor (1987)


(director/writer: Bernardo Bertolucci; screenwriters: Mark Peploe/Enzu Ungari/based on the book From Emperor to Citizen; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Gabriella Cristiani; music: Ryuichi Sakamoto/David Byrne/Cong Su; cast: John Lone (Pu Yi as an adult), Richard Vuu (Pu Yi, age 3), Tsou Tijger (Pu Yi, age 8), Tao Wu (Pu Yi, age 15), Joan Chen (Wan Jung, “Elizabeth”), Peter O’Toole (Reginal Johnson), Ruocheng Ying (Jin Yuan, the Governor), Guang Fan (Pu Chieh as an adult), Victor Wong (Chen Pao Shen), Dennis Dun (Big Li), Ryuichi Sakamoto (Masahiko Amakasu), Maggie Han (Eastern Jewel), Ric Young (Interrogator), Lisa Lu (Tzu Hsui, The Empress Dowager), Tijer Tsou (Emperor’s father); Runtime: 160; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Jeremy Thomas; Artisan; 1987)
“Visually splendid epic on the last Manchu imperial ruler of China.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Leftist filmmaker, a member of the Italian Communist Party, Bernardo Bertolucci (“Conformist”/”Luna”/”The Sheltering Sky”), directs a visually splendid epic on the last Manchu imperial ruler of China, Pu Yi (1906-1967), who came to the Dragon Throne at the age of 3, in 1908, by the will of the Empress Dowager, Tzu-Hsui (Lisa Lu), and three years later, in 1911, the prince regent (Tijer Tsou), Pu Yi’s father, was forced to abdicate his imperial authority to republican forces while Pu Yi was kept on as a symbolic figure–living as a virtual prisoner in the sealed off Forbidden City, where he’s served by many hangers-on and attended by 1,500 eunuchs in an opulent palace that has over nine thousand rooms and is granted every wish except he can’t leave the grounds. In 1919 Pu Yi is given an acerbic Scottish tutor and imperial adviser (Peter O’Toole), who remains loyal to him and opens his eyes to the surrounding world he’s cut off from; In the 1920’s, the wealthy Pu Yi (John Lone, playing him as an adult from 18 to 62) and his beautiful and faithful empress, Wan Jung (Joan Chen), nicknamed Elizabeth, accompanied by his secondary wife, are booted out of the palace by a war lord and move to the port city of Tianjin. For the next few years they live a Western-styled hedonistic decadent life, as Elizabeth becomes an opium addict and Pu Yi, garbed in tuxedos to go clubbing, takes many mistresses. In the 1930’s the Japanese invaded Manchuria and installed the hapless Pu Yi as a puppet ruler (a ceremonial position he gladly took) in Japanese-controlled Manchuria and made him sign many documents giving them legitimacy in their occupation; what follows is Pu Yi’s capture by the Russians at the end of World War II and imprisonment and then turned over in 1950 for a ten year re-education program to Mao’s People’s Republic of Communist China. It ends in 1967 with Pu Yi’s new life as a gardener at the Botanical Gardens in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. The new life seems to be a trade off of yielding a powerful position for living a humble simple life, whereas he’s no longer a puppet for someone else’s program like he was in the Forbidden City, for the Japanese during the war or used as a propaganda tool by the Maoist Communists. Bertolucci tries in his uncanny way to sell his liberating brand of Communism to the West, but it’s a cold film and a hard sell.

The historical film, filled with gorgeous costumes, eye-catching pageantry and beautifully shot by Vittorio Storaro, is told in a flashback/flashforward narrative, beginning in 1950 at the Manchuria border with Red China and annoyingly with great frequency goes from the present to the past–keeping its history lessons muddled. It makes a point of letting us know that Pu Yi was a prisoner when living as a coddled child in the Forbidden City, when kept as a pawn by the Japanese during the war, and when brainwashed by the Maoists at the detention center. Pu Yi is viewed as an ordinary bloke who led an extraordinary life, and whose story could serve best as a morality fable or an abridged pictorial introduction to the first half of 20th-century Chinese history.

Bertolucci is less an historian (all but ignoring the brutalities committed by the Cultural Revolution) than an eloquent storyteller. The story of Pu Yi is on firm risk-free Freudian psychological ground, as he’s viewed as the confused man, a victim of circumstances, who tries to find his identity in the world while leading a mediocre life. Pu Yi doesn’t seem lost anymore as an ordinary citizen, when it seems without others to influence him he might have found his own personal redemption.

The Last Emperor was based on the 1964 autobiography of Aisin-Gioro “Henry” Pu Yi (1903-1967), entitled From Emperor to Citizen, The Last Emperor (1987), and is cowritten by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. It was made for $25,000,000 and was shot on location in China, in such places as the Liaodong peninsula, Manchuria, Beijing and The Forbidden City (Bertolucci has the honor of being the first Westerner allowed to film in the Forbidden City). This sumptuously elegiac tale took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Sound.