The last and third film I would like to discuss which influenced my story is The Last Emperor.
Like many people reading this blog, I’ve seen this film many, many times and as you can imagine find it very difficult to summarise quite what I like about this magnificent masterpiece from Bernardo Bertolucci without the fear of leaving one amazing scene or piece of dialogue out! It’s my longest post yet – so please do bear with me.
I think it says a lot about a film to keep returning to it, possibly seeing something new with each watching and still wanting to come back to see its splendour again.
IMDb rating: 7.8/10
The film is based on the biographical book of the last emperor of China, Puyi, and charts his journey from child emperor to war criminal and then finally to a free man. I do not think anyone reading his book or seeing this movie wouldn’t be moved by the turmoil that surrounded Puyi throughout his life, particularly as the revolution tightened its grip throughout China. Forever a prisoner of sorts it seemed no sooner than he was out of the confines of the Forbidden City, then he was captured and imprisoned again – swapping one prison for another.
Released in 1987 this was in my last year of secondary school in the UK. Seems like a lifetime ago, well, it is a lifetime ago now looking at my wrinkles! Where quite a lot has changed for me, this film remains perfect, stuck in a time where it doesn’t have a sell-by date. That’s how it should be. That’s how all masterpieces remain. Timeless.
We are treated to epic, sweeping majestic views of the Forbidden City and rich visuals which are perfectly captured and some of the best I have ever seen on film. In a series of flash backs and forwards this tale starts with the young Puyi becoming Emperor at 2 years, 10 months of age, the grandeur and pomp of the palace and his role as Emperor doesn’t disguise the fact that it robbed him of so much, his freedom, his childhood and possibly himself, unable to create his own sense of self outside of the rules of acceptable behaviour.
This story, to me, is about someone who, even though they held the title Emperor, was truly powerless and isolated for most of their life. As a child in the Forbidden City, as a puppet Emperor for the Japanese and as a man protesting his innocence as a war criminal. He seemed forever to want to find his voice, his independence and only a few times in his life could you see he had a taste of that. John’s portrayal of Puyi’s angst as always with such meticulousness, he deserved so much more from this role – I’ll get to that later.
- The arrival of his Scottish tutor come Father-figure Johnston (O’Toole). I particularly enjoyed the scenes with the older Puyi (Lone) and Johnston, O’Toole seamlessly playing the dignified British gentleman – which it seems he was moulding Puyi into. Puyi also enjoying their closeness as he starts to find himself and his confidence under Johnston’s guidance and wisdom. Johnston’s departure from China, with a band playing Auld Lang’s Syne is quite heart-breaking and a big blow to Puyi, yet another person leaving him. Their awkward goodbye talk in the car remains my favourite scene ‘Do you think a man can become Emperor again?’ ‘Yes’.
- Puyi defiantly cutting off his hair and casting it to the floor, much to the delight of his Empress and Consort. This act marking Puyi’s transition to becoming a man, rebelling against the establishment and thousands of years of history. This to me is an important glimpse into what Puyi could’ve been as an Emperor.
- The scene in the bed with his two ladies, just a sheet to tell us what delights are going on underneath. This is such a classy and clever scene; it suits the culture and sophistication of the film. This scene ending with the eunuchs setting fire to the palace. Fantastic!
- The ‘I want a divorce’ scene in the cab, the unwanted Consort (Wu) of the Emperor strikes out for freedom knowing that her role as Consort is obsolete in a western lifestyle and not one that she can play anymore.
- Eastern Jewel (Han), the traitor cousin of the Emperor – she is so thoroughly bad, dress sense and personality that I like all her scenes. Expert toe sucker.
- The man servant walking away from Puyi’s gaze in the prison yard while they’re practising tai-chi.
- The Emperor as he takes the steps at the end, as a free man, this is such a beautiful, wonderful shot. In fact I wish the film had ended here rather than the cricket scene, but I can live with that!
If you haven’t seen this film then you simply must, I’ve left so many important and powerful scenes out – the Governor, the acts of rebellion from the young emperor and the interrogation of Puyi. This blog doesn’t give it any justice whatsoever, in fact I have put my finger on the delete button so many times.
It’s the winner of nine academy awards, which brings me to my final point… WHY DIDN’T JOHN WIN AN ACADEMY AWARD FOR THIS ROLE OR EVEN GET NOMINATED?
This will remain a mystery to me and many others for the end of time I feel. In my humble opinion it’s one of the biggest mistakes and travesties in the history of the academy awards.
Reginald Fleming ‘R.J.’ Johnston: The Emperor has been a prisoner in his own palace since the day that he was crowned, and has remained a prisoner since he abdicated. But now he’s growing up, he may wonder why he’s the only person in China who may not walk out of his own front door. I think the Emperor is the loneliest boy on Earth.
I haven’t even touched upon the wonderful music of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Can you imagine this film without it? I understand that Lone and Sakamoto didn’t speak off set as they were opposing characters on-set.
As I visit the Forbidden City this year I will think of the young Puyi and not forget his epic battle just to live a normal, free life. It appears that Puyi’s brother visited the set and met John, what an incredible honour it must’ve been, for both of them.
Walls do not need to be concrete but can exist in your own mind and world.
“An ocean of tears, no boat, no oars, no nothing Celine, but your bare skin…” Dr Albert ‘Bertie’ Chan, SPRING
Sir Reginald Johnston – more about Puyi’s English tutor.
YouTube – Puyi documentary
Behind the scenes – The Last Emperor
Fans of the Last Emperor – Facebook page