The Last Emperor Reviews
I think a very overrated movie, and not engaging enough for me to rate this movie any higher!
Okay, that little diversion aside, this is a tremendous and wonderful film chronicling the life of Pu Yi, the last emporor of China before the tumultuous events that led to experiments with being a republic then a communist state. Covering the years of 1908-1967, this film, despite being a bio pic, is really a great glimpse at the history of a country during some very turbulent but fascinating times. In a way it's like a serious Forrest Gump sort of thing, though I don't mean to trivialize this by making that comparison.
I've watched both the original and extended "director's cut" (though Bertolucci maintains that the theatrical cut is his prefered version and that the extended cut was just something he assembled for Italian TV) and I think they are both brilliant films. I think I might like the original more though. The extended cut is an hour longer, making the film clock in at 3 hours, 38 minutes, but some of the added material, like extended backstory are pretty good. The bulk of the additions though, are more political machinations and stuff involving Pu Yi in pre-WWII Manchuria. If you are into socio-political issues during this time and place, then the extended cut will probably please you. If not, then you might just want to stick with the original cut.
Regardless of the version, this is a gorgeous film filled with excellent cinematography, beautiful costumes wonderful music (the main title theme will forever be stick in my head), and just great artistry. This is an art film that is both mindblowing because of the technique and storytelling, and the story itself. Pu Yi's life was rather tragic, and not just because of the Shakespearean way his empire crumbled around him. At no time did he ever truly have any real power, and it wasn't until most of his life was over that he was finally living without being told what to do. The scenes of his "re-education" are more painful because for him, it wasn't "re" but just regular education. Yet, from a symbolic standpoint, and for the first few years of his life (before the Chinese Revolution), yeah, he was something special.
I know that the Chinese government has a certain reputation about them when it comes to portrayals of the country and its history, so it made me happy to know that when Bertolucci approached them with two projects he wanted to shoot in China, this was the one they chose. It's like they knew that telling this story was important, especially because all parts of a country's history deserve to be known to the masses. Plus, this film made history by getting unprecedented access to film all over the Forbidden City, and the results are just great.
Well, I've gushed a lot, but I don't thnk this film is perfect. It is long, and sometimes boring, but I found myself so intrigued and moved that I can't really hold any ill will towards it. It was nominated for like 9 Oscars and won them all, and they were definitely deserved. You should definitely give this one a watch. It's quite something.
My absolute favorite thing about the movie is the cinematography. This film literally transports you into historic China. The settings, costumes, scenery, appearance....it's simply unreal.
It's also interesting that this film is the first film to be given permission to shoot in the Forbidden City. This emphasizes my second favorite thing about the film, the grand scale of the story itself. The story covers over 60 yrs. of Puyi's life. It's important to try to make the film realistic and to include as much history and experiences as possible. Wow, this film delivers.
The pacing of this film is absolutely fantastic. Every scene is just the right length and every scene transitions nicely with the rest, especially the transitions between the past and the present. However, there are times the film drags. It's never boring, but there are definitely moments where I sort of wanted the scene to change or move on.
The acting was not the greatest, but it was mostly do to the child actors needed for the first 90 minutes of the film. However, the second half of the film delivers much better performances. I thoroughly enjoyed John Lone's performance as the adult Puyi. Peter O'Toole also gives a good supporting performance.
The Last Emperor is a film everyone should see! Winner of 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, this film delivers. Yes, it drags here and there, and the acting is not as finely tuned as I had expected, but I was completely taken in nonetheless. Check out this incredible classic film!
I guess it's nit-picking to lament that the history of China is portrayed in broken English, but oddly enough, I thought that subtitles would add to the verisimilitude of the film. Also, there are moments when The Last Emperor degrades into mere costume drama, and as a result, by the end of the film, which itself was quite anti-climactic, we don't feel like we got to know any person, even the eponymous emperor, but we did learn a bit about China.
Overall, I have to recommend the film based on technicalities, but you should probably read up on Chinese history or you'll get lost.
The movie covers almost 60 years of Chinese history from the perspective of one person. The last emperor, Pu Yi, lived through so much history during the first half of the 20th century. I don't know how much of the story is completely historically accurate, but the changes of the decades and major historical events seem to be presented authentically. The story reminded me at certain points of the movie and book, The Good Earth. While that story shows some of the cultural changes in Chinese history from the perspective of peasants out in the fields, this story is told mainly from within the walls of the Forbidden City or the walls of a Communist re-education camp. There is a strong imprisonment theme! The story is told in flashbacks, and I thought this device was well crafted with interesting parallels.
Pu Yi's life is incredibly tragic and yet I found all the drama enthralling. He becomes Emperor at 3 years old and so hasn't formed any ideas for himself. Even later in his life you can't really say that he ever gained much experience as a leader. Earlier in China's history this might have worked out better to have a leader start so young without much conflict, but with all the changes preparing to take place in the 20th century it is inevitable that Pu Yi would become a tragic figure. He becomes spoiled because every want and need is taken care of for him. He's a puppet controlled by many others through his life. Early in his life China becomes a Republic and he no longer has any real power, but traditions stay the same inside the Forbidden City. Just before WWI O'Toole arrives as a Western tutor and Pu Yi begins to learn about the modern world. Eventually he tries to reform the traditions of imperial China, but he still takes a wife and a consort (a second wife). China then becomes a Communist country and some people turn against the Manchurian part of northern China. Since Manchurian is the Emperor's heritage, he and his remaining staff are kicked out of the Forbidden City. He ends up being welcomed by Japan in the early 30's before WWII and they feed him some misinformation. At this point he still craves the power of being Emperor and there is a lot of political intrigue as Manchuria becomes independent (but, Japan is really pulling the strings). He has relationship issues with his wife and consort, one feeling like a third wheel in the more westernized Japan and the other becoming addicted to opium. After WWII the Communist powers in China change a bit and in 1950 we catch up to the "current" events where Pu Yi and all the other imperial supporters are being re-educated. Ying gives an impressive performance and human face to the "Governor" of the camp. It is an amazing, in depth, dramatic conflict from the American audience perspective when you realize that Pu Yi was working with the Japanese, one of the Axis powers of WWII, and the Communists are trying to turn him into a comrade. Between a rock and a hard place. There's a good portion of Americans that wouldn't see either side of this conflict as worth cheering for. But still I found it very engaging to watch John Lone portray the struggle.
One of my favorite quotes: The Governor- "You are responsible for what you do! All your life you thought you were better than everyone else. Now you think you're the worst of all!" There's also a quote about how all the new generals and changes in the communist regime are just like the battling war lords of tribal society. There's a sense that the differences between the old and young in society will lead to history repeating itself, and in fact power keeps on shifting but nothing in history really changes.
Director Bernardo Bertolucci is able to fill The Last Emperor with so much visual intrigue, that one can hardly afford to look away. Each scene is framed with immense elegance, and is accentuated masterfully by brilliant costume design and set design. In this way, the world building for Last Emperor is nearly perfect. We see China and its traditional grandeur, the awkwardness that the outside poverty offers, and the contrast to the more modern changes taking place. As such, it is an exceedingly strong example of how a period piece should be staged.
As a narrative Last Emperor is largely successfully, but not flawless. Whereas the technical elements of the film are executed to excellence, the story in Last Emperor is told with some mishaps. It offers very interesting characters, but not full characterizations. Peter O'Toole's character, for instance, is a hallmark of the first half, but is never fully paid off. O'Toole brings a fine performance, as does John Lone, but the relationship between the two is never fully realized. How his influence escalates is never quite shown, he exits in far too much of a disjointed manner.
This is true of a number of the secondary actors as well, such a Vivian Wu, whose character feels oddly inexplicable in the film. The character arc for Lone is done well up until the last act, where his seeming betrayal is never explored enough, and whose increased intellectual prowess never seems quite on point with where he should be.
Taken on a whole, however, the story in Last Emperor is fascinating. The themes are interwoven especially well, examining class, power, change, and retrospection. We are treated not only to a historical journey that is reality-based, but we are also given a biopic that would exist successful on its own dramatic merits, outside of the actual people it's based on.
An overall strong and memorable drama.
I tell you what, he may be Italian, but Bernardo Bertolucci sure seems to know a thing or two about that good old fashion Chinese Cinema melodrama, because this film will hit a couple of overwhelming moments in drama and other aspects, making for some seriously unserious-feeling unsubtlty. To make matters worse, Bertolucci understands that kind of cheesiness a little bit too well, to where he really pronounces it to an extreme extent that, on the rarest of occasions, cuts the drama from the melodrama and just leaves behind a bit of corniness that throws you out of the film for a moment. Still, as much as those moments throw you way off, occasions in which the melodrama is that severe are extremely scarce, while any occasion of melodrama in general is far and few between, and what you really need to worry about is how that statement of "far and few between" can also be applied to the points in which something happens in the film, or at least the points where something not dull happens. The film gets to be meditatively quiet, with a dry overemphasis on pure nothingness (We don't even get the common courtesy of something that's actually symbolic), and while those occasions are only here and there, when something actually happens, quite often, the dryness remains, yet moments like that remain different from the moments of pure nothingness for the transitions between storytelling methods to feel somewhat inorganic. Of course, that might just be because the slow spots - of which, there are quite a few - disengage you so much that you don't even pay attention the tonal transitions, though exposition, on the other hand, certainly goes missed, not because you lose focus in the film, but because the film simply doesn't have a whole lot of fleshing out within its very complex story and characters, thus landing yet another blow to the subtlty of the film and leaving you to want a little bit more from the story. Boy, the consensus sure isn't kidding when it says that the film is imperfect, as it is a meditative epic with just not enough subtlty to meditate upon, and the final product comes out with quite a bit to be desired. However, it's not like you'll be walking away dissatisfied, because for every false move in this film, there is a real hitter of one that leaves it a rewarding epic from a visceral standpoint, and certainly from a stylistic level.
Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is not terribly upstanding, yet there is a degree of attractive emphasis on deep colors, with the most eye-catching thing about Storaro's photography might very well being its very clever play with scope, as there is a kind of epic vastness, married with intimacy, that is both engagingly nifty and even rather reflective of the film's fairly prominent theme of isolation from a grand and complex world, thus leaving the cinematography to make the film feel more effective as a character study, as well as an epic. Hey, I don't know about you guys, but I'm just happy that there's enough broadness to the photography to give us a nice view at the remarkable production designs, which are detailed, believable and dazzling, further catching your eye and breathing further life into the story. The story is a worthy and fascinating one that is really livened up by such intricate and production value, yet the person who doesn't so much liven up the story, as much as he really brings it to life in the first place is director Bernardo Bertolucci. Sure, Bertolucci's direction really does a number on this film as it struggles to fulfill some pretty high potential, yet it gets up to good momentum by what Bertolucci does so very right, as he manages to really capture the depth and emotions of Emperor Puyi's story and Puyi himself, perhaps not in the most subtle or fleshed out fashion, but still with enough inspiration to where he really cuts to the core of this story and creates some genuine high spots that are more than enough to win you over and make this film a rewarding one. Bertolucci really absorbs plenty of dramatic depth and epic sweep, and it really carries this film, which isn't to say that Bertolucci couldn't have given this film as much energy as it has without the help our leads. Sure, there are plenty of memorable performances, from Peter O'Toole as Puyi's charismatic and concerned tutor, to Vivian Wu (Or as she's credited, Wu Jun Mei) as Puyi's very much secondary-feeling secondary wife, yet it is, well, everyone behind Puyi who really keep things going, whether it be Wu Tao as the roughly maturing Puyi or John Lone as the strong, but still very humanly struggling adult Puyi. All portrayers of the late final Emperor of China are faithful to the role, almost to the point of transformation, yet no matter whose turn it is to lead, expect a compelling performance that stands among the many things that ultimately make this film a more often than not engrossing one.
In the end, the final product goes tainted by a few overwhelming, if not a little bit cheesy melodrama, as well as consistent slowness - which will sometimes decent into dry, bloated meditation on pure nothingness - and even quite a bit of unsubtlty, thus making for a film that's not quite as complex as it should be, but still with plenty of depth, as well as epic sweep, thanks to the inspired direction of Bernardo Bertolucci, whose work goes complimented by Vittorio Storaro's grand cinematography and fine production designs, as well as particularly upstanding performances by just about every portrayer of our central focus Emperor Puyi, thus leaving "The Last Emperor" to stand as a slow and steady, but generally compelling and ultimately rewarding study on, well, the last Emperor of China.
3/5 - Good