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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Last Emperor

End of an Era

When Pu Yi ascended the throne in Peking in 1908, he was only 3 years old. From his short-lived reign to his arrest as a counterrevolutionary in Red China in 1950, he spent his life as little more than a pawn of those who wished to further their own agendas. Nevertheless, director Bernardo Bertolucci’s gorgeous and seductive The Last Emperor imbues this powerless and constantly thwarted figure with a resolute if melancholy grace.
Young Pu Yi (played as an adult by the magnificent John Lone) is superfluous almost from the moment he becomes emperor, no more than a relic in a China that in 1911 becomes a republic with a ruling president. Sequestered and sheltered inside the Forbidden City, a realm of fantastical sites and rituals — women with elaborate headdresses woven with their own hair, armies of worshipful eunuchs — Yi is “a prisoner in his own palace,” says his Scottish tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), “the loneliest boy on Earth.” Forced from the Forbidden City at last during a period of anti-Manchurian sentiment (Yi is an ethnic Manchurian), the young man is granted asylum by the Japanese and is later crowned emperor of Manchuria after a Japanese invasion. Yi is merely a puppet for the Japanese, however. Even later, in a Red Chinese prison in the 50s, he is a pawn of the communists, useful as an example of their reeducation efforts.

The Last Emperor is a superb examination of the passing of the old world of monarchs and the divine rights of kings (Pu Yi is called “the son of heaven” by his grandmother, the empress dowager, on his ascendancy), through the eyes of a man who embodied that era. In the space of Pu Yi’s lifetime, the base of power shifted from the ruler to the ruled. Working as a simple gardener in Peking in 1967, Yi witnesses student demonstrations that he is helpless to affect — not only do none of the young people recognize him, they won’t even hear a simple plea from him.

Even more tellingly, when he visits the Forbidden City — now a tourist site one buys an admission ticket to see — a young child yells at him to stay behind the ropes. The boy may echo the bossy little brat Pu Yi was at his age in this same place, but he’s no “lord of 10,000 years” — he’s just a common, proletarian child who doesn’t even see it as daring to scold an old man.

Best Picture 1987
unforgettable movie moment:
When the emperor expels 1000 eunuchs from the Forbidden City as punishment for theft of its treasures, they leave carrying their organs in jars. “Whatever their crimes,” a courtier says, “they cannot be deprived of their right to be buried as whole men.”

previous Best Picture:
1986: Platoon
next Best Picture:
1988: Rain Man


MPAA: rated PG-13

viewed at home on a small screen

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