Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)

Benardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor offers no sense of comfort for its titular subject. Its present, set in a post-Mao China, is cast in pallid grays, a deathly sense of decay and necrosis emanating from its shots of soldiers lined up to take war criminals off a train and transfer them to an old prison. However, its first flashback, of the deposed emperor ascending the throne as a child, swaps out the drabness for soft yellow tones so warm they become suffocating. Communist China may hold no quarter for the last emperor, but the sheltered, obsolete world into which Pu Yi comes to briefly rule is just as incompatible for a child of the 20th century.

Made with an unprecedented level of cooperation by the Chinese government, The Last Emperor provides a mournful microcosm for the upheaval of the early 20th century. Still a toddler afraid to be separated from his mother and bonded with his wet nurse, Pu Yi is suddenly a god to the eunuchs and concubines, who must treat this child as such even as they attempt to handle his age-appropriate tempers and playfulness. But his status as a supreme being only truly applies to the walls of the vast but finite palace in which he lives. The film's first half remains within the Forbidden City until its gargantuan size feels claustrophobic, the sounds of rapid social change in surrounding Peking buzzing with inevitability. Eventually that world will shatter Pu Yi's own, allowing Bertolucci to fully explore his passion for national and sexual politics as the emperor, like China itself, makes up for centuries of static social systems with tumultuous changes in a short period of time.

Bertolucci's graceful camera, aided by the gorgeous cinematography of longtime collaborator Vittorio Storaro, captures Pu Yi's childhood with a clear sense of irony. The selfish toddler does not fully understand his role, only that it means he can do whatever he wants, and it's amusing to see his handlers trying to calm the rambunctious child down without be able to make any kind of physical contact or issue any command—who, after all, can order around an emperor? Yet forces still restrict the child, especially the old courtesans who gather in Pu Yi's vicinity but never quite his presence—they typically not not share a shot with the emperor, and when they do they are separated by some kind of frame, which only makes them further resemble living portraits of long-dead, long-outdated ancestral voices. When the women see the ties between Pu Yi and his wet nurse lingering for too long, they expel the woman. And while the boy continues to play around the palace, those in charge of handling his affairs give up his royal authority in the wake of nationalist rebellions. As an adviser sadly informs the child, he remains emperor inside the Forbidden City, "but not outside."

By intercutting between the palace and the internment center, Bertolucci demonstrates that the emperor has only ever really known prison. The only difference between the Forbidden City and the center in Fushun is that his captors in the former pretended to obey him while scheming and plotting in the real world, while at least the Maoist wardens and guards treat him directly. And as much as John Lone's face communicates anguish and shame as the adult Pu Yi, it also contains traces of contentment, even relief, not seen in the character's younger incarnations. Here he is finally just another person, which is what he wanted all along, even when he recoiled at the first tastes of that commonality.

But there is still a 40-year gap between these early flashbacks and the present, and Bertolucci uses the details of Pu Yi's life in the intervening years to clarify the forces at work on the Chinese mindset. As the emperor, the lad is already at a disadvantage, even more backward than his peasants. Trapped in the one place where he can still behave as a monarch, Pu Yi belatedly Westernizes, ignorant of the ravages of Western influence on his empire. His people are already flirting with the Reds in Russia, and by the time Japan offers him puppet rule of Manchuria, he's out of step with the nationalist movement that resists the takeover. Even the Scottish tutor who becomes a trusted friend (Peter O'Toole) recognizes how behind the emperor is, though he only voices his concerns to the other advisers. Pu Yi never can catch up, and his attempts to modernize only alienate him from everyone.

That separation carries over to the man's sexual life, which is at once woefully outdated and more open than modern couples can enjoy. While in a port city just before his faux-reascension, Pu Yi and his two wives mingle at a party, where one of the women dances with an American and tells him that she is "wife number two." The American, so brash and flirtatious, blanches at this information, barely able to stammer out a, "Some guys have all the luck." But Pu Yi did not really get to choose either, and his consort was actually his pick for the handful of politically rewarding options given to him (his second choice was more fortuitous, hence her being the empress). Likewise, his wives begin to chafe after the expulsion from the Forbidden City, forced to deal not merely with the loss of station but the sudden meaninglessness of their designations. Bertolucci tied sex to power with The Conformist, which mingled homosexuality and fascism, and Pu Yi's lack of power—and subsequently hollow "reascension"—seem to completely kill his sex drive, while the women find more extreme ways to cope.

Nevertheless, for the clear sympathy the director shows to his subject, Bertolucci subverts the emperor's perception of his real tribulations. The aforementioned suffocation of the Forbidden City makes his omnipotence within its walls ironic, and his dealings with the Japanese are no better. In fact, a shot changes color tones when his handlers calmly but forcibly set Pu Yi straight on the farce of his rule of Manchukuo, the frame turning an icy blue-white. Bertolucci, an acknowledged Marxist, does not cover up the violence and subjugation of Communist China—he pointedly links the coded discipline of those within the Forbidden City to that of the soldiers taking political prisoners—but he does suggest a beneficial side effect. After his "successful" conversion to Communist ideals in the holding center, Pu Yi is released a decade later, and when we see him at the end, he seems to have found some measure of contentment. He even identifies himself as a gardener to a soldier, his past life as a monarch totally behind him. Unmistakable is the implication that the former is more meaningful and fulfilling than the latter.


  1. Which cut of the film did you see for this review?

    I used to own an extended cut DVD from Artisan years back and it's been a very longtime since I've seen both as I still don't have the 4-disc Criterion set. I still enjoy it as I'm a fan of Bertolucci's work.

  2. I watched the theatrical. Bertolucci himself doesn't seem to like the TV cut and it was left off the Blu-Ray entirely.