Does anyone remember how The Last Emperor dominated the Oscars in 1987? It won nine Academy Awards including Best Costume Design, Cinematography, Art Design, Sound, Film Editing, Musical Score, Adapted Screenplay, Director (Bernardo Bertolucci), and finally, Best Picture. Despite this gaudy resume, The Last Emperor tends to fly a bit under the radar. This is unfortunate because it is a movie that should be seen. It transports us into Chinese culture during the early to mid 20th Century, behind the walls of the Forbidden City where the Chinese Emperor ruled, and into the middle of the transformation of China from an imperialist society to a communist one.
The story revolves around Henry Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China, born in 1906, who came to power at the age of two. When he was five years old, his power was stripped from him, although he continued to rule within the walls of the Forbidden City, and was the non-ruling emperor until 1924 when he was finally forced to leave the Forbidden City along with his family. Although he was a progressive leader, due to the tutoring of Englishman Reginald Johnston, played by Peter O’Toole, much of the movie is dedicated to Pu-Yi’s attempts to adapt to life outside the walls of the Forbidden City. Although the emperor understood that his place in the new China was going to be drastically different than the one he occupied in the Forbidden City, there is always a sense that he longed for the respect and dignity he felt there. It is as if, despite his progressive tendencies, his upbringing in such an imperialistic manner made it impossible for him to truly abandon his title, or hopes of one day occupying a throne again.
Not only is The Last Emperor a movie with a compelling story, it is also a visually stunning movie. It was the first movie to ever film inside the Forbidden City, and the majesty of the city is brought to life. The sets and costumes add to this aura, as they help to recreate early Twentieth Century China in ways never before seen. John Lone is also exceptional in his portrayal of Pu-Yi as an adult. Although he was not nominated for an Oscar for his performance, he captures the emperor’s conflicted emotions perfectly; showing us the struggle, pain, arrogance, and sadness Pu-Yi must have felt throughout much of his life.
If you haven’t seen The Last Emperor, be sure to check it out from our collection. And as always, if you have seen it, I would love to hear your opinions.
Rated R – 160 Minutes