Monday, March 10, 2008

The Last Emperor


In this post, I spoke of purchasing the Criterion Collection's four disc set of The Last Emperor, and I have finally finished watching it.

The Last Emperor is one of the only (if not the only) films to win every Academy Award that it was nominated for, including Best Director and Best Film. There's definitely a reason why. In terms of technical skills, Bernardo Bertolucci is perfect. For most of the running time of the film (I watched the theatrical version first), I was just gaping in awe at the beautiful composition and camera movements. There's so many sweeping camera movements that kind of remind me of Scorsese that zoom past, in, or out of Pu Yi, and it's all very gorgeous.

It's a biopic of China's last emperor, Pu Yi, who was crowned at the age of 3 and was confined to the Forbidden City for most of his childhood. During this time, in the early 20th century, China was going through a lot of massive cultural and political changes, including changes in government, and the increasing influence of the Western world. For most of his life, Pu Yi was a puppet and blind to the forces beyond his small life, and his small emotional growth. He was expelled from the Forbidden City and then reinstated as an emperor by Japan in the new country of Manchukuo, essentially Pu Yi's native land, Manchuria, but he is again blind to being used by the Japanese government. After Japan's surrender, Pu Yi is captured by the Russians and is sent back to China and spends 10 years in a reeducation prison. The film leaves out the time with the Russians and the time in the gulags. It focuses mostly on Pu Yi's time in the reeducation prison and his reforming by the prison governor, who becomes an almost father figure to him. After 10 years, Pu Yi is released and becomes a gardener in Beijing. The film ends with Pu Yi going back to the Forbidden City and meeting a child wearing the red of the Communist party, a symbol for the future. Pu Yi proves to the child that he was the emperor by revealing the cricket from Pu Yi's childhood which is hidden in the throne. For some reason, the cricket is still alive, and Pu Yi disappears. It's a great scene.

The film leaves out quite a bit of his life, including his numerous wives; instead focusing on the first wife and the first concubine. It also combines numerous characters into composites, but the film isn't about historical accuracy. The Last Emperor is about a complex man living during a complex time in history, and the country that he lives in. Pu Yi learns to be his own man while at the same time that China learns to be its own country. There are a lot of parallels drawn between China and Pu Yi in the film, while at the same time, a lot of contrasts. China is often explored as an idea, kind of like how America is an idea. Many characters speak of China, showing the myriad perspectives on such a big country.

Bertolucci is such a fantastic director. There's a terrific scene in which Pu Yi, his wife, and his concubine gather under the silk sheets in the Forbidden City. It begins playfully, with giggles, but then Bertolucci shows an overhead shot of all three under the sheets, with no skin exposed. You can see their hands moving and their bodies moving. Their giggles shift into moans and it becomes very erotic, even without skin. But then the lighting changes from blue to red, because the storerooms have been set on fire. The colour shift is so gorgeous, and it's very symbolic. At this moment, Pu Yi's life in the Forbidden City has changed forever.

The Criterion Collection has, of course, done a remarkable job in the extras and in the restoration of the film. The film looks pristine and new, which is very important to a film where colour is extremely symbolic and everpresent. There's no way this film could be black-and-white; there's too much colour. The Last Emperor was certainly deserving of its awards for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

I love this movie, and I have since I was a child. It's such a complex and rewarding story, and every time I see it, I get something new from it. Strongly recommended.

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