The Last Emperor (1987, Bernardo Bertolucci)
For Bernardo Bertolucci to retain his sense of eroticism and softness in so imposing a realm as the Forbidden City requires far more than a mere invocation of David Lean, to whom The Last Emperor feels in many ways like a tribute — and not even just because it contains a rather superfluous Peter O’Toole (is there any other kind?). Like the other Lean-derived major film of the ’80s, Gandhi, this film fuses old-Hollywood fixations on the large-sized epic with a more mannered and supposedly realistic structure. Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro certainly make something of the material, at least early on; the colors are rich and luminous, the sense of place and floating out-of-time stillness stunningly immersive — for all its massiveness, communicating a certain heartfelt fragility that Lean couldn’t have put across. China crumbles before Bertolucci’s brilliance. But even a great filmmaker cannot surmount his greatest obstacle: the lopsided structure of the cinematic biopic.
As implied by the title, this Oscar winner’s subject is Puyi, China’s last emperor, whose quite bizarre life was filled with intriguing twists but lends itself to focused narrative storytelling no more than anyone else’s. There are lulls, there is a general lack of rhythm, and there’s an overwhelming sense that the director is fixated on specific chapters of Puyi’s life specifically because of what they offer visually — that’s a blessing and a curse. It renders the “story” next to incoherent and often inescapably mundane, but it also provides us with much that’s glorious to see and feel, and to almost divorce such visceral reactions from any kind of manipulated pathos is a somewhat fascinating stunt for a studio picture. (This is, at this writing, Columbia Pictures’ last Best Picture winner.) Still, such lofty aims are far from an ideal match for a film that approaches three hours and exists in an even longer cut. A quick and fair descriptor for all this might be to say that it’s a series of beautiful images in search of an outlet.
For the first quarter of the film, there seems more to the movie than this pure-style ideal might suggest, because the early portions of Puyi’s life contain the most fascinating, strange ideas and by far the most opportunities for visual elegance. To put it mildly, that owes much to the setting: The Last Emperor is the first western film ever shot in the Forbidden City, which is utilized to stunning effect by Bertolucci and Storaro and comes through in remarkably lively color. Puyi’s youth, beginning with his entrance into the City (the only untampered male amid the eunuchs) and his odd coronation, is like a strange dream and by far the most majestic sequence the film gives us. We’ve seen the sequence of his giggly approach out to an army of the faithful reenacted for decades and yet it’s still a pure shot of splendor and delight. The boy is ridiculously young for the importance afforded him, which in turns gives the film comic and surreal possibilities to run with. It does so for a time then gives up, for there are staid and dignified obligations to be met, first off involving tutor Reginald Johnston (O’Toole), an important figure who stops the film’s momentum dead. All of the signature images and moments of The Last Emperor — the awards reel, if you will — occur while Puyi is still being portrayed by toddler Richard Vuu and preteen Tijger Tsou.
It’s not all a bore when Puyi begins to grow up. There is a lovely sequence involving a bicycle ride and a lengthy sojourn into ménage à trois fantasy with which Bertolucci has all the fun you’d expect. Empathy toward the Emperor is maintained even after John Lone takes over the role and does less with it than his younger counterparts — perhaps by necessity — but the film remains dazzling until it leaves the Forbidden City, and casts off the fascinating story of the thieving eunuchs with scarcely a backward glance as the now-grown Emperor moves into exile. There’s class confusion to spare afterward but it’s strung together awkwardly, making liberal use of eccentric moments to try and keep the energy level. The three-way sex scene is one thing, but The Last Emperor has managed to rest its reputation on a moment wherein Joan Chen (whose performance far outshines any other in the film, incidentally) sits bitterly munching on flower petals. Remember nothing else about the back half of this film (which you probably won’t) and you’ll still remember that. If you’re a foot fetishist, there’s more that will probably stick with you, but what blog do you think you’re reading!?
So The Last Emperor does subvert the widespread cultural memory of it (to the extent such a thing exists) in one important way — it’s far from a humorless film, and in fact enjoys a good bit of absurdity and perversion almost from the beginning. I was almost uncomfortable with the depiction of the eunuchs and Lisa Lu’s outlandish portrayal of outgoing Empress Cixi, for Bertolucci plays both for what feel to me like Western laughs, but it’s hard to come away without some appreciation for the liveliness of his approach. Aside from flower-consumption, the film has lingered in the long-term memory of some for its brief shot of young Puyi’s fecal matter, one of the many decisions Bertolucci has made over the years that, well, makes you wonder. But the film stretches on for such an eternity in its last hour that you are grateful for its eccentricities, especially when the location porn is past us.
Most of the acting here is merely passable, for which I blame the director primarily; I’m quite sure Lone would’ve rendered grown Puyi with more emotional range and depth had he been permitted to. When he has that cathartic revelation at the end and sits on his old throne, it’s not remotely the weighty complicated choice you’d think, simply because the film doesn’t know how to play it as an earned moment. Like much of this film, it’s mostly just weird — for better or worse. The sense of loss that permeates the present day scenes, versus the flashbacks, seems equally oblique when we have no clear reason to know or care of the connection of these events to the body of the film unless we’re properly well-schooled in Chinese history.
It’s hardly an unworthy film, despite all this. For sheer logistics alone, it’s a remarkable achievement and the historical precedence it sets for accept-no-substitutes location shooting is rather triumphant for Bertolucci and his production staff (led by Jeremy Thomas) — you get the sense that the film was nearly an excuse to shoot as much of the City as possible while there was still time, e=specially when you learn that neither the director nor screenwriter Mark Peploe felt any great interest in Puyi’s life, finding him a mostly unremarkable subject. All the more impressive that they’d give him such lavish treatment then, a reality rendered like a dream. And even with all its indelible images, as with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, what sticks most is the stirring music score, in this case by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su with David Byrne — a loving and challenging complement to the pictures that alters them irrevocably and, from title sequence to final moments, is the most formidable artistic achievement of this odd, unsatisfying movie.
[Note: I screened the theatrical version for this review. Evidence suggests that the director’s cut only magnifies the movie’s worst tendencies. If you feel differently and that I should give the longer version a shot someday, please do let me know.]