The Last Emperor (1987)

Bernardo Bertolucci directs John Lone, Peter O’Toole and Joan Chen in this epic following China’s boy emperor’s fate after the Communist Revolution leaves him deposed, exiled, exploited, incarcerated and eventually released.

A genuinely compelling story that peaks at the midway point. The cloistered life of the infant emperor as he comes of age and realises his lack of power and freedom is resonant and beguiling movie making. It almost out epics David Lean, it almost usurps Farewell My Concubine (a movie whose timeline runs parallel to the titular protagonist’s here) for emotional engagement. Once we leave the Forbidden Kingdom and enter a world of coups, espionage and re-education it becomes a harder film to love. Events tumble into each other far too quickly and with less grace, it becomes easy to get lost or grow restless. The characters and the audience get a little left behind in the march of time. Puyi’s adult life as playboy, puppet king and brought down to earth citizen needed an hour’s more space to flow naturally. I would have been happier if this were a two-part four hour event. We as mainstream audiences sometime reject too readily any film that exceeds the three hour limit. Much more interrogative than Scorsese’s later and similar Kundun, this is certainly a life worthy of the grand scale historical biopic format. By following a flawed figure who acts as a dissecting line through the churn of the 20th century’s upheavals we truly witness a verisimilar cross-section of China’s modern history. Bertolucci does however somehow manage to slow things back down and recapture some of his masterpiece’s early strange energy and majestic mystery in the final moments. Certainly an experience.


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