The Last Emperor: A Boy in a Bubble

I have a lot of clumsy friends. I think all of us can be clumsy at times, too. I know I am. I’ve dropped my new phone more times than I care to admit (it’s not broken, though!) and I can trip over lines with the best of them. 

One common lament from clumsy people is how they wished they lived in a bubble. Then, nothing could ever make them sick and nothing would ever hurt them. Have you ever thought about what your life would actually be like in a bubble? What if you’d been in that bubble for years with thousands of people waiting on your every need? What kind of person would you be then? 

In The Last Emperor, the 60th winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, director Bernardo Bertolucci explores the very concept of living in bubble and what that does to a person. From the very beginning, this film is an unbelievable epic of a biopic, full of terrific performances and a sheer beauty that puts it in a class all its own. 

The Last Emperor features human experience and a coming of age. It’s much like Gandhi in this respect, the emperor, Pu Yi, must find his own way in the world. But his human experience does not equal most. His journey lacks the building of self-awareness and compassion that we much all face in our lives. He lives a different life and, as a result, he’s a different person. 

Throughout this post, I’ve added some photos that my girlfriend, Laci, took on her trip to China in 2016. She writes a travel blog and you can see more of her photography here

Now for the review:

Plot

The Last Emperor follows the life of Pu Yi, the 12th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who was crowned in 1908 when he was pulled from his home at not even three years old. Although, it’s not overly apparent at the time, he’s got an impossible task. While he is the emperor, he lives in Beijing’s Forbidden City with more than a thousand eunuch’s whose only job it is to wait on him. 

From the moment he become emperor, people bow to him and wait on him hand and foot. The eunuchs forbid him from leaving the city and don’t inform him as to what’s happening outside the walls, even as the rest of China descends into chaos. Following the formation of the new Republic of China, he even abdicates the throne when he’s seven, and yet the eunuchs don’t tell him. It’s easier to keep up appearances that he’s still the emperor. 

The rest of the movie is Pu Yi dealing with the illusion of the imperial system, his expulsion from the Forbidden City during a coup, his life as a playboy, his installation as a puppet emperor for the Japanese during their occupation of China and eventual capture by communist forces. 

To be honest, there’s so much plot to this move that it seems almost too much to be able to mention in this blog. The Last Emperor is an exceedingly complicated movie about a man who is less than complicated. The basic gist of the plot is that, due to his spoiled upbringing, he’s unable to see the consequences of his actions and the atrocities he enabled until it is much too late.

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I had to use both viewings of this movie to get my head around the whole thing, there’s just so much too it. But that’s okay. The goal was to create a biopic and it was done very well. 1. 

Writing/Dialogue

Mark Peploe and director Bernardo Bertolucci wrote The Last Emperor. The script is full of authenticity and dialogue true to the time and to the characters. But there’s a lot of depth here as well. Throughout his life, Pu Yi finds his ambition and expresses his regrets through words. 

The story is told through mostly flashbacks and he’s the one narrating his own life. He’s telling it story to his captors in prison. But it’s an adult view of a child’s actions. Yet, he’s defiant that he made the right choices throughout his life. It isn’t until he’s done telling the story that you see the truth of his life and his actions. 

The writing also demonstrates an aptitude for different cultures, customs and periods in time. Throughout Pu Yi’s life, he’s guided by a tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole). He’s from Scotland and brings his own culture and ideas to China. This surprising width of the script help lend a lot of authenticity to this movie. The Last Emperor won the Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium. 1. 

Sound

David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su composed the music for The Last Emperor. The score, along with the cinematography, is as grandiose as the tale itself. It’s large and sweeping with bold melodies. There are numerous Asian riffs but also more Western and classic tunes. This movie is much like one that we’ve seen in modern times, with music under every scene. This is an interesting shift from The Hurt Locker, where there wasn’t much of any music. This score is very good, and it set the tone of the movie well. I’d recommend a listen. The sound earned two Oscars, for Best Original Score and Best Sound. 1. 

 Set Design

I mentioned in the introduction that the beauty in The Last Emperor is in a class of it’s own. That starts with the set. 

Most of the outside scenes in The Forbidden City were shot in the actual Forbidden City. That adds a ton of authenticity and credibility to it. Everything else is reproduced so effectively that it almost borders on gaudy. There are little details everywhere. The colors are spectacular and the rooms and buildings do nothing but sell you on the grandeur of the palace. 

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I want to take some time to talk about the clothing and the hair styles here. They’re way over the top and damn it they’re beautiful. The clothing is full of colors and patterns of the finest silks. The women’s hair is ridiculously well-done in large geometric shapes or it hangs from sticks and extends a few feet behind their head. The Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design went to this movie. 1. 

Cinematography

The Last Emperor’s Director of Photography was Vittorio Storaro and he won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Whereas the last several movies (all the way back to Gandhi) have had simple, yet effective cinematography, The Last Emperor was very grand and over the top. 

One of my favorite camera uses was how much movement there was in this movie. The camera was always moving, be it on a track or on a crane, or on a simple tripod, there was ample camera movement. 

It the movements showed off the beautiful sets and the costumes. In the beginning of the film, after Pu Yi is taken to the Forbidden City for the first time, the camera shows monks worshipping and singing hymns. The procession with young Pu Yi goes from left to right. However, the camera moves from right to left, surveying the entire scene. This is a nifty trick to account for the limitations of scale of the scene versus the size of the frame. Brilliant camera work. 1. 

Acting

John Lone plays the adult version of Pu Yi, while Peter O’Toole plays Reginald Johnston, Pu Yi’s tutor. 

John Lone (Pu Yi) I’ve always felt that playing a historical figure is one of the hardest roles to play effectively. Thus far in 89 & Counting, this is the second historical figure that I’ve seen. While John Lone’s performance is nowhere near as brilliant as Ben Kingsley’s, that’s not to say he doesn’t nail the part. 

As I’ve said before, Pu Yi’s life was much different from normal people’s. Therefore, he’s got different motivations and different perspectives on the human experience. Yet, Lone is able to pluck those experiences for Pu Yi and make them relatable to all of us watching it. When it comes to his performance of Pu Yi, his subtle performance makes you realize how he’s feeling only after careful concentration of all the elements at play. He may be cocky, smug or suicidal but you only realize after analyzing the situation he’s in. This is brilliant acting. 

Joan Chen (Wan Jun) Chen plays the empress, opposite of John Lone. She, too, has her struggles. The daughter of Chinese aristocrats, Wan Jun steps into an arranged marriage with dignity and class. After Pu Yi leaves the Forbidden City, she quickly wants more. She’s unhappy in Pu Yi’s ambitions but she has no choice. This fact drives her bananas and she eventually picks up an opium habit, albeit not entirely on her own. This ruins their marriage and strikes almost every lucid thought from her mind. 

Like Lone, Chen had her subtly tested by this role and she responds perfectly. She conveys the natural emotions of a woman not only in love but one who is heart broken, teetering on the edge of a devasting addiction. 

Peter O’Toole (Reginald Johnston) Peter O’Toole plays a relatively small part in this film, but his presence is certainly felt. 

I love Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia and, while this is not anywhere near the same role as that one, he still nails being Reginald Johnston. From the time he arrives when Pu Yi is a teenager, Johnston acts as a calming voice for the young, spoiled emperor. He’s the voice of reason and his conscience. But he’s also very blunt with the emperor; he doesn’t shield him like the eunuchs do. O’Toole brings a calm determination to this role and does a spectacular job. It’s no coincidence that Pu Yi’s life tumbles down after Johnston departs. 1. 

Directing

Bernardo Bertolucci directs this stirring film. He also co-wrote it. From beginning to end, this film has the makings of a classic epic in cinema. It’s an incredibly complicated movie to make and it took A LOT of extraordinarily creative people to help his vision come true. It all worked due to his stellar leadership and direction. The Last Emperor is a masterpiece. 

This movie was beautiful visually and it is certainly in a class all its own. The sets are over the top and it shows that the movie was extensively researched and made with extraordinary commitment from all departments. 

It’s also very well told, through the use of flashbacks and Pu Yi’s bias of the past. For his efforts in this film, Bernardo Bertolucci won Best Director for his efforts and it’s well-deserved. 1. 

Bonus Points

I have to give a bonus point to the set design in this movie. As I mentioned about the set, The Last Emperor was researched well. But it was more than that. There’s not a hair out of place in this movie or a speck of dust in this movie. It’s quite impressive. 

Final Score: 8/10

Oscar Facts

The Last Emperor won the 60th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 11, 1988 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. This ceremony was the last Academy Awards to be held in the month of April. The Last Emperor beat out Broadcast News, Moonstruck, Hope and Glory, and Fatal Attraction for Best Picture. Eddie Murphy presented the award and Chevy Chase hosted the ceremony for the second year. The Last Emperor became just the second movie to be nominated for nine Oscars and to win all of them. The Last Emperor also won Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. 

Other notable winners that night include: Michael Douglas winning Best Actor for his role in Wall Street; Cher with the Best Actress win for her role in Moonstruck; Sean Connery won Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Untouchables; Olympia Dukakis won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Moonstruck. The Last Emperor had the most nominations and awards with nine each. 

Next Week

Next week, I’ll take a look at Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 Best Picture winner. Following that, it’s Terms of Endearment, Titanic, It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take it With You, The Deer Hunter and No Country for Old Men (one of my favorites).

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