Monday, February 14, 2011

The Last Emperor

L'ultimo imperatore; drama, Italy / UK / France / China, 1987; D: Bernardo Bertolucci, S: John Lone, Joan Chen, Ying Ruocheng, Peter O'Toole

In 1908, in the Forbidden City, the 3-year old Puyi has been chosen as the last Chinese emperor. He spent his whole childhood in that palace, isolated, surrounded by servants, without a possibility to exit into the outside world. In 1911, he learned that China became a Republic and that he is an emperor only in the walls of the Forbidden City. As a teenager, he was fascinated by his Scottish teacher R.J. Johnston. In 1924, Kuomintang troops performed the last (symbolic) coup d'etat by invading his palace, upon which Puyi and his wife Wan Jung finally had the chance to exit outside. However, he had difficulties living as an ordinary citizen, and accepted the offer to be an emperor again in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. After the end of World War II, he was arrested and spent 10 years in prison. He died as a gardener.

Sometimes, there is no need to invent events when history already has some really good stories at everyone's disposal, like Puyi in this case, the last Chinese emperor. Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" is the darnedest thing: it has impressive themes to display, but presented in such a subconscious-hermetic way that viewers will have to see the film twice in order to 'decrypt' it as something more than a bland 3-hour epic with just fancy colors. He takes a rather objective, distant approach, yet some moments are simply touching anyway, like the magnificent sequence where the 3-year old Puyi goes outside the palace and walks down the stairs into a monumental sight of thousands of servants and soldiers all kneeling before him in the courtyard - yet, what else can be expected, the child is only interested in a small cricket he hears between them. The excellent performance by Peter O'Toole as his caring teacher also gives it a human side.

One of the unassuming little aspects of the film, that some viewers may not register the first time, is how Bertolucci captured that history era and all the madness of the systems with it. How is it possible that an emperor is not allowed to go outside the walls of his own palace? The theme is repeated when Puyi becomes a pseudo-emperor in the puppet state Manchukuo during World War II, where the Japanese are basically dictating everything to him. Bertolucci was obviously engaged by the irony of such an existence, where a ruler has no control over some basic things in life or some basic freedoms, unlike "ordinary" people have when they simply go out of their house. The mouse scene is terrible, yet it shows his feelings of a trapped man. The fascinating, and true (!) turning point was when Kuomintang abolished his reign and forced him to go outside for the first time - but as an ordinary citizen, the guy was lost, it was as if he was on Mars. By depicting this transition from a monarchy into a Republic, Bertolucci gave a wide ranging portrait of all these systems, from an empire up to pseudo-communist China under Mao Zedong, unmasking them as flawed systems, but also about transience. It is a heavy film, yet it has a point if you try to put yourself in the protagonist's shoes. The idealized ending where the old Puyi visits the empty Forbidden City as a tourist and finds his old cricket still there is completely fabricated, yet it is enchanting because the authors wanted at least to add some magic into Puyi's life, when it was so dark all along.


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