The Good: Well-filmed, Decent acting
The Bad: Pacing (long and feels long), Unempathetic characters, Lack of great DVD bonus features.
The Basics: Slow and well-filmed, The Last Emperor is a cinematic marvel with characters it is hard to care about.
A number of significant people in my life - and my wife's life - are Chinophiles, lovers of Chinese art, culture and history. Both my father and mother and my partner's mother have made trips to China within the least five years. In fact, my father has been twice as well as to Cambodia and Vietnam and the only real surprise to me is that he has not returned from any of those countries married. The thing is, I know all three of the Chinophiles in my life have absolutely loved The Last Emperor and I think, having viewed it now, that if one views it objectively, it is a lot harder to love. Like Brokeback Mountain, it took me two takes to get through the entire movie because we fell asleep while watching it. Given all of the films I have watched and NOT fallen asleep to, this is ALWAYS a bad sign!
Before the criticism begins, I appreciate foreign films and I love history. I just like movies that make me care and that do more than just look good. But after two viewings of The Last Emperor, I failed to care about any of the characters and the situation. I suppose there's only so much of watching an eight year-old breastfeed one can get! The bottomline for me, though, would have to be that if one loves movies that are beautifully-shot and slow, moody and interesting, save yourself a couple hours and check out the engaging The Red Violin (reviewed here!). Even the main character, a violin, is more interesting than the human characters in The Last Emperor. And while the film is well-shot, that is only a point in my rating system.
Opening in 1950 with the transfer of Pu Yi to a People's Republic of China prison, an adult Pu Yi attempts to kill himself to avoid incarceration. Kept alive, presumably so the Communist Chinese could kill him later, Pu Yi recalls his early childhood. Named the Emperor of Ten Thousand Years by the dying Empress Dowager, Pu Yi is kept in the Forbidden City and raised to rule all of China. However, with the Revolution, the Forbidden City is cordoned off and the Emperor is sequestered as a powerless titleholder outside its walls as the governor of the Chinese Republic takes over all outside the walls of the City. Still coddled by those within, it is a British tutor who begins to care for Pu Yi and prepare him for the changing world.
Flashing ahead to the prison and the People's Republic Of China's accusations against him, Pu Yi contemplates his life. He recalls his tutor ending corruption within the Forbidden City when he realizes the eunuchs have been stealing national treasures and selling them off, he recalls his betrothal, and his exile from the Forbidden City. After that, Pu Yi takes up with the Japanese forces by becoming their governor in Manchukuo, which leads back to the prison. After realizing he was wrong to fight his own people (mostly for how brutal the Japanese were to the Manchurians), he repents, and is allowed to live out his days as a gardener.
The Last Emperor is a boring story mired in inevitability. Cinematically, it is lush and director Bernardo Bertolucci has a great eye for color and detail and he makes the story look good, even if it is slow. But on the story front, it is very hard to care about a pampered kid whose whole life is handed to him and then taken away incrementally. It is hard to feel empathy for a guy who is told he can do anything, breastfeeds almost until he's a teenager, has threesomes while the city is burning and then loses that lavish lifestyle. Where does a character go from the top of the world except down? The story is not particularly engaging because the narrative technique informs us that the inevitable fall happens, it's just a matter of how. Frankly, Pu Yi does nothing so interesting in the early sections of the film to make the viewer care how he got to the prison.
As well, amid nursemaids and tutors, eunuchs and military personnel, The Last Emperor is packed with so many characters that it would make Tolstoy dizzy. The casting on The Last Emperor is particularly problematic, especially in the early sections when characters look and dress alike and have very few distinguishing marks. As a result, the viewer may well spend more time trying to keep people straight than they will following what the characters are doing.
I have a love of long movies, but some movies are long and feel long. The Last Emperor is one of those films. By the time Pu Yi's tutor, Mr. Johnston leaves the film, the viewer is pretty much ready for it to be over, but there's a lot more coming. Mr. Johnston is one of the more empathetic characters as the Scottish tutor is characterized as a generally upstanding man who wants to see Pu Yi succeed, even when it becomes clear that the world is changing pretty radically. Mr. Johnston is played with stiff-backed dignity by Peter O'Toole. Having only seen O'Toole's work before in The Lion In Winter and Supergirl, this role reminds viewers of the strength of great casting and the strength of O'Toole as an actor. His part in The Last Emperor is engaging and it was easy to stay awake while he was on screen.
The cast is fleshed out - however briefly - by some other impressive actors, most notably Joan Chen and Ruocheng Ying. Ric Young has a great role as Pu Yi's interrogator, setting himself up for his recurring role as an interrogator throughout Alias. Even Richard Vuu and Tsou Tijger do well as younger incarnations of Pu Yi, though Vuu's role is essentially to play a three year old, which is about what he was at the time. These are not great stretches of acting.
John Lone and Tao Wu are responsible for keeping the audience engaged for most of the film as the adult and fifteen year old versions of Pu Yi, though Wu is more successful than Lone. When Lone is given the burden of keeping the story interesting, the character becomes less likable and the performance is more understated. The earlier, more expressive performances, especially by Wu undermine the sense of character continuity when it comes to Lone's performance. Even so, Lone is not bad and when Pu Yi's adult story is being focused on (and the audience wakes back up) he does a fine job.
On DVD, The Last Emperor appears as a director's cut with an additional hour of footage. Having never seen the original, I don't know the difference, but the extra duration does not help the film any as far as pacing. The movie is presented in widescreen format with the original theatrical trailer. The DVD does not have a commentary track, but it does have text production notes that may be read before or after the film. There are also filmographies of the cast members and production crew.
Whatever the historical value of The Last Emperor, it fails as an entertainment piece. To get the history of the final emperor of China, one might be better off going with a documentary.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]
For other dramas that are set in the early 20th century, please check out my reviews of:
Memoirs Of A Geisha
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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