The Last Emperor Reviews
An interesting story, great acting, gorgeous costumes and sets, and who could forget the astounding cinematography that makes The Last Emperor an epic delight.
Bernardo Bertolucci is the kind of filmmaker who has proven that even in times when he cannot craft the most interesting story, he knowns how to create a visionary experience. As Stealing Beauty (1996) and The Dreamers (2003) are the only two films of his I have seen which have both lived up to this prophecy, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised when The Last Emperor did as well. It was just more disappointing this time around due to the higher level of critical acclaim this film held over the director's other works.
I wasn't all that familiar with the political history of China before going in to The Last Emperor so I had hoped that it would provide me some kind of historical understanding of the country. In actual fact, the audience gets as much of a sheltered perspective of the political context as the titular character. The same way that Puyi is hidden from the world in the Forbidden City in Beijing. As a result we are able to see the world through the eyes of the protagonist yet blinded to the mass amounts of history that he is missing. The fact that the story maintains such a narrow focus over such a lengthy period of time makes it an epic which is actually rather small in scale. When considering that, it just makes the film seem like an oxymoron.
It's clear that The Last Emperor has such a great story to it, but Bernardo Bertolucci insists on keeping the focus so minimal without knowing precisely what makes the story interesting. The beginning of the film is focused so heavily on Puyi growing up as a child granted the title of the next Emperor that essentially nothing happens for the entire first hour. The film is nice to look at for the duration of this, but the lack of actual story dynamics grows increasingly frustrated. Eventually we begin to see some things happening, but the slow pace of the film is maintained the entire time and so the sparks of intrigue are not turned into flames at any major point in the film. We are expected to just looking at the pretty pictures while little else happens until around halfway through the film, and by that point the damage is already done. Even when the story does finally begin to explore more engaging territory, the unsatisfactory build-up and continuously slow pace keep the film from making any kind of emotional impact.
During this extensive waiting period, the character development doesn't prove to justify the small scale of the film. Rather than emphasizing who Puyi was as a person, the film simply presents his life as an emperor. Obviously this needed to be a key story factor in a film called The Last Emperor, but we never gain any understanding of who he truly was as a person. The film begins by showing Puyi's childhood in which we see the traditional manner a child is raised in the Forbidden City as the story intertwines this with his contemporary experiences as a prisoner of Fushun. Trying to keep up with both these time periods while the context of them is so elusive proves to just make the experience thoroughly confusing, and the already boring nature of the film makes it a chore to have to follow along with. So ultimately, The Last Emperor has a story which is too poorly focused, too confusing, too slow and too long for its own good.
But as with any Bernardo Bertolucci film, The Last Emperor is pretty to look at. Given that the production of the film marked the first time a European filmmaker had been granted access to film in the Forbidden City of Beijing, it's quite a momentous production. And the director has no fear for showing off as much of the land as he can. The scenery is therefore picture perfect and makes the story seamlessly believable while the added production design and costumes just help to reinforce it. The film is a magnificent spectacle of imagery which is captured with perfectly gentle cinematography that always grasps the scale of the setting it deals with, and the beautiful musical score helps to compliment the visuals by reinforcing the film's cultural grace and atmospheric strength.
And even if the characters aren't magnificent, the cast in The Last Emperor make a solid effort.
John Lone proves perfectly sophisticated as Puyi. He only comes into the film during the later years of the story, but he enters during the most character-focused segments of the story and manages to capture the sophistication and genuine political concern of China's last emperor. He is also assisted by Joan Chen whose natural charisma helps to spark a strong chemistry between the two when the story makes them interact. Both John Lone and Joan Chen make a memorable presence in The Last Emperor.
Of course, it is the legendary actor Peter O'Toole who stands out in The Last Emperor. Assisted by the fact that he plays the only role in the film whose relevance to the story is explicit, Peter O'Toole's delightful charm helps to give energy to the film when it plods along at a tediously slow rate much of the time. The actor presents a naturally intelligent character who interacts with Puyi by showing some actual heart and transcending the background that all the other characters fade into. The man's natural charisma just lights up the screen and his friendly nature really pushes the film out of the bleak tone it finds itself trapped in for much of the time. Peter O'Toole's supporting effort in The Last Emperor really proves to be one of the most enjoyable assets to the film.
The presence of popular 80's Asian actors Victor Wong and Dennis Dun is also entertaining after their prior collaborations on Year of the Dragon (1985) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). And as a fan of B-movie action cinema, I'm always happy to spot Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa.
The Last Emperor boasts Bernardo Bertolucci's magnificent eye for imagery and Peter O'Toole's finely-tuned charm, but the epic political story behind the narrative is forsaken for a one-dimensional depiction of an identity-ridden narrative stretched on for too long by a tedious pace.
A very remarkable film indeed, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor tells the astonishing true story of Pu Yi, who was crowned the last emperor of China at the age of three and died a simple gardener in Beijing in the 1960s. But the real story is about China, and its turmoil through the wars and revolutions of the 20th century.
The film's richness and beauty are almost daunting, but it's certainly a film which anyone interested in the art of cinema will want to see. The Criterion standard DVD special edition, on which this review is based, includes two versions of the film, the original theatrical release and the director's special television release. Both are digitally remastered and have the same aspect ratio; unlike the usual situation, the television release is longer, and many fans of the film think it tells the story more fully and therefore more clearly, while others prefer the more tightly edited theatrical release. I recommend the television release, provided you have lots of time --- it's very long.
The Criterion set includes many special extras and a booklet. Advisories: a couple moderately explicit sex scenes, and a few short but shocking violent ones.
Spellbinding saga recollecting the final emperor of China.A haunting, sumtous, unforgettable epic, and is among Bernardo Bertolucci's best movie. Acting, dialogue, direction, score, A generally great movie experience that demands multiple viewings.