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The Last Emperor: Oriental opulence The Last Emperor: Oriental opulence
by Asa Butcher
2010-09-02 07:32:36
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Film
The Last Emperor
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
1987, Recorded Picture Company
When describing the majority of Best Picture winners over the past 80 years, “sweeping”, “epic” and “biographical” are three of the more common adjectives employed, although we mustn’t forget that having a main protagonist die at the end is also high on the criteria. The 1980s exemplified this with Gandhi (1982), Amadeus (1984), Out Of Africa (1985) and The Last Emperor (1987), each of which ticked all the boxes.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor can be considered the most successful of those four films with nine wins from nine nominations – a success unmatched since 1958’s Gigi – and it also proved to be Steven Spielberg’s nemesis that year after it beat each of Empire of the Sun’s six nominations. The Last Emperor was certainly worthy of the accolades it received and is among the most visually stunning winners over the past eight decades.

Bertolucci’s epic film tells the true story of Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last Emperor of China, who ascended the throne in 1908, a few months before his third birthday. The film flashes back and forth from his imprisonment as a war criminal to his isolated life growing up in Beijing’s Forbidden City, while also charting China’s political history during the mid-20th century.

The Last Emperor was the first feature film permitted by the Chinese government to be filmed in the Forbidden City and the use of those original locations lends both weight and a sense of scale to the film. One other word I would use in connection with the film is “authenticity” because the attention to detail is seemingly immaculate, although I doubt the actors playing the eunuchs were that dedicated to their art. It is easy to understand how the film won Oscars for cinematography, art direction and costume design.

The film covers the life of Puyi from childhood to adulthood and this required the use of four separate actors to portray him. However, the actor most commonly associated with the role is not John Lone, who superbly plays the adult Puyi for most of the film, but Richard Vuu, who plays the three year-old Puyi, due to his appearance on the promotional posters, DVDs and VHS covers – it also seems that this was Vuu’s only acting role.

Each of the four actors is memorable, but my own favourite was Wu Tao, who plays the 15 year-old Puyi. The reason for this preference is because he had the most screen time with Peter O'Toole as Reginald 'R. J.' Johnston, Puyi’s tutor. O’Toole, as ever, is superb by bringing further acting weight and much-needed humour to the film. The chemistry between Peter O’Toole and Wu Tao is absorbing, funny and their scenes together were my favourites.

I felt that the first half of the film, primarily set inside the Forbidden Palace, was the better half, with the huge numbers of extras, stunning imagery and sense of loneliness, but after Puyi is forced to leave the palace then the film becomes far more political and serious. It is not to say that the latter half was bad, only that it was poorer than its predecessor and John Lone’s adult Puyi was a tough and arrogant character with which to sympathise.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor certainly deserves to be among the top ten Best Picture winners and is definitely in the top five visually. The story and main character can become a little demanding after two-and-a-half hours, but it is well-worth sticking with it to the end. At the film’s conclusion you are left a little confused as to whether you should feel sympathy for Puyi, but after some later consideration of the events throughout the film you can’t help but feel a bit of compassion for this lonely last emperor, an innocent victim of a changing world.

     
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