Film Review

The Last Emperor (1987)

IMDB link
Running time: 2h 43min
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Enzo Ungari (initial screenplay collaboration), Mark Peploe (screenplay), Bernardo Bertolucci (screenplay)
Starring John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole

The Last Emperor tells the biographical story of the last emperor of China, Puyi (1906-1967) of the Qing dynasty. The film is based on Puyi’s autobiography from 1964, and won 9 Oscars, including Best Picture. While The Last Emperor is undoubtedly a good epic/drama and has some impressive cinematography, I do not think the movie is as great as the 9 Oscars make it sound. The story is quite fascinating, especially since it is based on real history (though obviously dramatized to some extent), but the film does not manage to make the viewer (or at least that was the case for me) care enough about the characters to become engrossed.

The Last Emperor has at least two things going for it: the cinematography and the fact that it made me want to learn more about the history of early 20th century China. In other respects, while the film does not fail, I do not think it succeeds sufficiently to reach greatness; the characters, with the possible exception of the emperor (John Lone), remain mostly distant and thus unrelatable, the performances are mediocre, and, apart from a few very impressive scenes, there is nothing that really stands out or is particularly memorable. While there are many emotional scenes, connecting with the characters was difficult, and that is not good for a film of this length. It is possible that that problem is my own and not a failing of the movie, though. I also felt that the tone was overly melodramatic at times. The costume and set design deserve some praise, though.

The most impressive sequence that the film has to offer takes place early

As already stated, the story is fascinating, though I am unsure as to how accurate the film’s version of events is. Wikipedia mentions that the emperor’s cruelty is downplayed, so at least some artistic license was taken — and it would be an impossible task to fit everything into a film, even if the film is almost 3 hours long. While the movie does present a somewhat coherent narrative, it does help to know at least something about the real events, and I was inspired to do some background reading about early 20th century China. The film was also the first western movie that was allowed to film in the Forbidden City.

Puyi as a child discovers his place in the world, and the viewer is thus discovering it with him
Puyi’s early life is characterized by extravaganze, lavishness, and color

Bertolucci uses colors and lack thereof to differentiate and contrast between Puyi’s early life, especially in the royal court, to the communist reign under which he is imprisoned. The communist segment is dominated by shades of grey and brutal architecture that has been stripped of all ornaments. In prison, individuality and social class is stripped away; the emperor is mostly treated the same as other prisoners, which is also in contrast with his earlier life. However, the film goes to great lengths to show that Puyi has been a de facto prisoner his whole life, even when he was emperor, as he did not have real power despite the title. Therefore his time in the communist prison is just the most obvious form of imprisonment he faced, a life with no luxuries as a distraction. There is also a theme of tradition clashing with modernity running throughout the film, shown by such (by now mundane) items/inventions such as eye glasses, bicycles, and cars.

Puyi goes from a gilded cage to a communist prison
The contrast between the emperor’s early life in extravagance to imprisonment by the communist regime is stark
There are minor touches of humor in the story

I am obviously biased, but 1987 had several better films than The Last Emperor, though it is quite obvious that some of them would never be recognized as such at that time (i.e. Predator, RoboCop, or even Lethal Weapon). The film that I might have chosen for Best Picture that year would probably be Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and it baffles me that it was not even nominated. But, of course, the Oscars are the Oscars, and it is easy to speak with hindsight. I do not think it is that outlandish that The Last Emperor won Best Picture, given its impressive cinematography and mostly inoffensive story.

Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia (1962)) shows up to teach young Puyi

The Last Emperor is a good period drama and tells an interesting story, but it is just not as good (or as entertaining) as the best of the genre are. Apart from the cinematography there is not much substance to carry the almost 3 hours so that it would not feel its length. Thus, I do not have much of an urge to watch it again, though it is entirely possible that if I ever do rewatch it, my opinion will change.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 0

Would I want to rewatch this film? Probably not anytime soon, but maybe some day

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