A quick comment before I jump into the meat of this review. I’m at my mom’s tonight and may or may not be there tomorrow. We have real internet at my mom’s, and I used that time to watch one of the movie’s on my Netflix Instant Queue. But beyond the obvious convenience of having that option for my movie watching pleasure, there’s one other thing that will make writing this particular review much easier than it’s been writing them at my dad’s with dial-up internet. At my father’s, I actually write the reviews in Open Office and then copy and paste them here on wordpress for fear that I’ll get kicked off the internet while I’m in the process of writing the review and lose half of my review, and then I spend like 40 minutes fighting with the internet to try and find the pictures that I use for all of my reviews. Fortunately, that isn’t a problem at my mom’s, and the whole scenario is just much less stressful. Anyways, back to my review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece ,1987’s The Last Emperor.
The Last Emperor is the true story of Pu Yi, the man who was the titular last emperor of China. Crowned at the unbelievably early age of three, Pu Yi would spend most of his life locked behind the massive walls of the Forbidden City, which served as both his palace and his prison. The film, in a well-implemented non-linear fashion, tells the story of Pu Yi’s years as the Emperor of China, his time as a political refugee after the Empire is dismantled, and his time in a Red Chinese re-education camp. This biography is set against an absolutely stunning and authentic recreation of turn of the century (and eventually mid-century) China.
I’m not normally a huge fan of historical epics and I generally think that biopics are just a cheap way for producers and directors to try and win Oscars. I think Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind are two of the most over-rated films of all time. If a director wants to impress me with a film like this, he has to do something really different. He has to go that extra mile. Maybe I should have known this film was going to be special when I saw that it was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. When I see his name, I don’t think historical epics. I think weird movies about sex and politics like The Dreamers. From top to bottom, Bertolucci gave this film the attention to detail and lavish production that it required while simultaneously delivering one of the most personal and tragic historical epics of all time. It can truly stand along side classics like Schindler’s List.
For a film that spans a man’s entire life of 60 odd years and lasts nearly three hours long, The Last Emperor never once felt like it dragged on or had become an indulgent bit of self-serving and pretentious film making. The film creates such a stark and provocative contrast between the nearly mystical sense of wonder and awe from the film’s Eastern beginnings and the later crushing Western influence that pervades every scene. The costuming and set design are practically unparalleled, although I think the film might have actually shot inside the Forbidden City itself. If you consider yourself at all lacking in your knowledge of Chinese history of politics, this film also serves as an entertaining refresher course in pages of history that are now mostly forgotten.
Ultimately though, what sets this film apart from the rest of the pack isn’t the pageantry or the production values. It is the fact that is an incredibly tender and intimate portrait of Pu Yi, a character full of surprising complexity and heart-wrenching tragedy. You see the entire span of the emperor’s life. You see him as a spoiled and abrasive child who has no right to be on the throne. You see him as a teenager starting to learn more of life and wanting to experience so much more than the walls of his palatial jail. You see him learn at the wing of his Scottish tutor played by the legendary Peter O’Toole. You see him as a grown man who has lost everything he knows but clings desperately to his imperial pride in the face of inevitable destruction. Lastly, you see him as an old man who has been forced to accept his role as a normal, average citizen in communist Russia. At every point, Bertolucci subverts your expectations of Pu Yi (unless you’re familiar with the actual history) and creates such a tragic lead that he could have came straight out of Shakespeare. Pu Yi has quickly become one of the most interesting and thought-provoking historical figures that I have studied in some time.
If you can handle that film is nearly three hours long, you need to just go ahead and watch this one. Normally, I am ambivalent at best towards films that win Best Picture at the Oscars. However, having just gone over the other movies from that year, I can definitely say that this is, if not the best, at least at the very tip top of the mountain. This was an exceptional achievement in film making, and it really sets Bernardo Bertolucci apart as a premier auteur in the realm of high-brow cinema.
Final Score: A