The Last Emperor Review

(2.5 STARS)

It’s somewhat ironic that I watched 1987 Best Picture winner The Last Emperor so soon after seeing 1996 winner The English Patient because the two share so many techniques, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s a gorgeous piece of work in every way. The way director Bernardo Bertolucci rendered this world is astounding. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful-looking films I’ve seen. That being said, the film is muddled and far too long. Its acting is questionable at best. And some (many) scenes felt entirely unnecessary.

The film chronicles the life of Pu Yi, who “ruled” over China during its most transitional period—from the early 1900s when it was a republic to the days when it was a Japanese puppet state to the time of Mao and the Communists. At the age of 3, Pu Yi was brought to the Forbidden City and was named emperor. He grew up knowing nothing of the outside world, though he desperately wanted to escape the city’s walls.

Flash forward many years to when Pu Yi (now an adult and played by John Lone) becomes a Chinese prisoner, accused of collaborating with the Japanese during the war. He tries to commit suicide, presumably to conceal something, but he is saved and forced to recount his entire life’s story.

The film jumps back and forth between these two storylines a little too much for my taste. It’s fine to use a framing device like this—The English Patient actually utilized it well—but The Last Emperor’s intentions are a little too vague for it to leave much of an impact. And because the film goes on for so very long, this device gets old…fast.

The acting is not great. Peter O’Toole is on hand in a strangely small role as Pu Yi’s tutor. He’s gives what is without question the best performance in the bunch. John Lone is good, not great as the emperor himself. He gets better as the film goes on, and during the scenes in which Pu Yi is an older man, Lone gives off a sense of world-weariness and wisdom that feels appropriate. He’s not quite as successful when he needs to play Pu Yi as an eager young leader who is desperate to spread his wings. In fact, the entire beginning of the film is a little laughable as actors of different ages try to pull off the whole “troubled young leader” thing.

The screenplay could have used a lot of tightening. I found most scenes with the empress(es) unnecessary at best—including the flower-eating, toe-sucking lesbian tryst with a Japanese spy (yes, you read that right). I thought the Forbidden City stuff went on a little long. It’s OK to have a long film, but you run the risk of people looking for places where trimming would have been welcome. The Last Emperor is full of those moments.

The Last Emperor does have some amazing strengths. Top on that list is the incredible cinematography and art direction. The setting is ideal for a quiet sort of film that allows us to marvel at its beauty. In spurts, The Last Emperor does just that. The score is exceptional, blending Eastern and Western sounds and styles with ease. And the direction, though long in the tooth, is never heavy-handed. Bertolucci, in many ways, constructs an odd sort of biopic. Some of the themes (like Pu Yi’s whole breast feeding thing) are surprising and just a little strange. I liked he doesn’t resort to pure idolatry.

The Last Emperor is definitely one of the more underwhelming Best Picture winners I’ve seen, and it’s not hard to understand why it’s rarely mentioned as a bright spot in Academy history. It’s the kind of film that, by and large, we’ve seen before, and though it boasts some wonderful imagery, that’s not enough to save it from its own bloated ambitions.

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