The Last Emperor

Critics Consensus

While decidedly imperfect, Bernardo Bertolucci's epic is still a feast for the eyes.



Total Count: 65


Audience Score

User Ratings: 39,834
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Movie Info

The Last Emperor is the true story of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last ruler of the Chinese Ching Dynasty. Told in flashback, the film covers the years 1908 to 1967. We first see the three-year-old Pu Yi being installed in the Forbidden City by ruthless, dying dowager Empress Tzu-Hsui (Lisa Lu). Though he'd prefer to lark about like other boys, the infant emperor is cossetted and cajoled into accepting the responsibilities and privileges of his office. In 1912, the young emperor (Tijer Tsou) forced to abdicate when China is declared a republic, is a prisoner in his own palace, "protected" from the outside world. Fascinated by the worldliness of his Scottish tutor (Peter O'Toole), Pu Yi plots an escape from his cocoon by means of marriage. He selects Manchu descendant Wan Jung (Joan Chen), who likewise is anxious to experience the 20th century rather than be locked into the past by tradition. Played as an adult by John Lone, Pu Yi puts into effect several social reforms, and also clears the palace of the corrupt eunuchs who've been shielding him from life. In 1924, an invading warlord expels the denizens of the Forbidden City, allowing Pu Yi to "westernize" himself by embracing popular music and the latest dances as a guest of the Japanese Concession in Tientsin. Six years later, his power all but gone, Pu Yi escapes to Manchuria, where he unwittingly becomes a political pawn for the now-militant Japanese government. Humiliating his faithful wife, Pu Yi falls into bad romantic company, carrying on affairs with a variety of parasitic females. During World War II, the Japanese force Pu Yi to sign a series of documents which endorse their despotic military activities. At war's end, the emperor is taken prisoner by the Russians; while incarcerated, he is forced to fend for himself without servants at his beck and call for the first time. He is finally released in 1959 and displayed publicly as proof of the efficacy of Communist re-education. We last see him in 1967, the year of his death; now employed by the State as a gardener, Pu Yi makes one last visit to the Forbidden a tourist. Bernardo Bertolucci's first film after a six-year self-imposed exile, The Last Emperor was released in two separate versions: the 160-minute theatrical release, and a 4-hour TV miniseries. Lensed on location, the film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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John Lone
as Pu Yi as an Adult
Joan Chen
as Wan Jung "Elizabeth"
Peter O'Toole
as Reginald Johnston "R.J."
Ying Ruocheng
as The Governor
Victor Wong
as Chen Pao Shen
Dennis Dun
as Big Li
Ryuichi Sakamoto
as Masahiko Amakasu
Maggie Han
as Eastern Jewel
Ric Young
as Interrogator
Jade Go
as Ar Mo
Tiger Tsou
as Pu Yi Age 8
Guang Fan
as Pu Chieh
Henry Kyi
as Pu Chieh Age 7
Alvin Riley III
as Pu Chieh Age 14
Yang Baozong
as Gen. Yuan Shikai
Biao Wang
as Prisoner
Cui Jingping
as Lady of the Pen
Cai Hongxiang
as Scarface
Pan Hung
as Li Shu Xian
LiDien Lang
as Empress Wan Rung
Zhang Lingmu
as Emperor Hirohito
Basil Pao
as Prince Chun
Martin Reynolds
as Englishman
Luo Shigang
as Chang Ching Hui's secretary
Zhang Tianmin
as Old Tutor
LiDien Xing
as Li Yu Qin
Jiang Xi Ren
as Lord Chamberlain
Vivian Wu
as Wen Hsiu
Richard Vuu
as Pu Yi (3 years)
Tao Wu
as Pu Yi (15 years)
Lisa Lu
as Tzu Hsui The Empress Dowager
Hideo Takamatsu
as Gen. Ishikari
Hajime Tachibana
as Japanese Translator
Huang Wenjie
as Hunchback
Jing Dong Liang
as Lady Aisin-Gioro
Dong Zhendong
as Old Doctor
Shao Ruzhen
as First High Consort
Xu Chunqing
as Grey Eyes
Luo Hongnian
as Sleeping Old Tutor
Yu Shihong
as Hsiao Hsiu
Jun Wu
as Wen Hsiu (12 years)
Lucia Hwong
as Lady of the Book
Wu Hai
as Republican Officer
Xu Tongrui
as Captain of Feng's Army
Li Fusheng
as Minister of Trade
Shu Chen (II)
as Chang Chinghui
Cheng Shuyan
as Lady Hiro Saga
Daxing Zhang
as Tough Warder
Zu Ruigang
as Second Warder
Jin Yuan
as Party Boss
Akira Ikuta
as Japanese Doctor
Matthew Spender
as Englishman
Kaige Chen
as Capital of Imperial Guard
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News & Interviews for The Last Emperor

Critic Reviews for The Last Emperor

All Critics (65) | Top Critics (16) | Fresh (59) | Rotten (6)

  • The most startling achievement of The Last Emperor is that it accomplishes what seems to have eluded Bertolucci for some time. He has found the small in the large and, in many ways, he has created what many thought impossible -- an intimate epic.

    Apr 26, 2018 | Full Review…
  • As pure spectacle, "The Last Emperor" is a spellbinding peek behind the gate of a lost world.

    Feb 17, 2015 | Full Review…
  • It is a hesitant, conservative approach that yields great elegance and a rhythm that carries the viewer along. Yet the film is haunted by a sense of opportunities not taken, of an artist deliberately reining in his artistry.

    Jan 7, 2014 | Rating: 3/4 | Full Review…
  • If there is such a thing as voluptuous detachment, Bertolucci and John Lone have found it. Lone's achievement in his absorbing account of Pu Yi is to place him at a distance and yet make his plight totally involving.

    Jan 7, 2014 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…
  • There's probably a truly great movie in the story of Pu Yi, but The Last Emperor is not that movie. Still, what director Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) has accomplished here is both ambitious and impressive.

    Jan 7, 2014 | Full Review…
  • As coolly lavish an epic as we may ever see.

    Feb 22, 2013 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The Last Emperor

  • Nov 20, 2013
    The Last Emperor is a very sweeping and engaging epic. From a visual perspective it is fantastic and in terms of this man forced to be King, we ultimately get a very tragic tale.
    John B Super Reviewer
  • Jul 27, 2013
    Grandly staged and beautifully executed, The Last Emperor is a visually stunning biopic on the life of Aisin-Gioror Pu Yi. The film covers his rise to power, his privileged isolation, and the political turmoil he found himself in later in life. At three and a half hours, The Last Emperor is a film that requires some patience, but has the technical skill and sufficient narrative power to keep you engaged. 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. 4/5 Stars
    Jeffrey M Super Reviewer
  • Nov 18, 2012
    Visually stunning, but suffers from too little dramatic development. As Pu Yi grows, there are too many inconsistencies--the annoying dubbed child's voice at 2 y.o., speaking beautifully fluent British English as an 8 year old, and then becoming suddenly Chinese again at age 15. In other words, more attention is paid to the movie's style than to its substance or the details. And while the style is truly beautiful, you need a decent story to go along, and we don't get that as audiences.
    Jeff L Super Reviewer
  • Jul 17, 2012
    Strange as it may seem, "The Last Emperor" isn't all that boring. It's quite great, actually. After a slow and somewhat uninteresting opening half hour, it picks up with the arrival of Peter O'Toole, who turns in a wondrously nuanced performance, and becomes a splendid account of Japan's final and most passive emperor. Bernardo Bertolucci's elegant, sophisticated direction compliments a focused, if imperfect, screenplay. On top of that, the lavish production design fills the screen with beautiful colors and textures, and both the cinematography and lighting are marvelously used. Interesting score, too.
    Stephen E Super Reviewer

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