Big films take time, to watch and to digest. I remember The Last Emperor from 1988, Mary and I going to watch it. Memory places me once again in the old Odeon, in front of the big screen needed to absorb a big film, big not merely in time but in scope. Memory says it was a Sunday morning and somewhere in my diary for that year I can find out the truth, but I don’t want to. Emotionally, a Sunday morning outing is more true that whatever day of the week it might really have been.
It was a big film, winning nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bernardo Bertolucci, and it was everywhere you went, then upon a time. So why did I and the world forget it, me until only seven days ago, enough to find and buy the DVD dirt cheap on eBay?
That I don’t know. Given the appearance in the Twenty-First Century of a vigorous Chinese film industry, working within its own culture, is it that people have turned against The Last Emperor because they see it as cultural appropriation? I don’t know. All I do know is that the world seems to have forgotten a massive, powerful film.
The Last Emperor was based upon the 1964 autobiography of Pu-Yi, who was the last Emperor of China, who ascended to the throne as a toddler of 3, who was deposed without his knowledge, who became a puppet of the Japanese as Emperor of Manchukuo (Manchuria), a political prisoner of the (Russian) Red Army, a war criminal subjected to deprivation and re-education and finally a gardener, content with the simplest of lives. Who amongst us could go through that and remain sane?
The film is a marvel. Bertolucci obtained permission to film inside the Forbidden City itself, the Emperor’s ‘Palace’ from which he was forbidden to leave. That means that the film is being filmed where these things actually happene, making the film simultaneously both real and unreal. It starts with the toddler Pu-Yi being taken, separately, from both his mother and father, to become Emperor, cuts to Pu-Yi’s arrival at the Re-Education centre and his attempt to commit suicide, then alternates between interrogations and his history to that point.
I said simultaneously real and unreal. The film is real in being filmed in concrete surroundings, but the story it tells is far from real. Indeed, it is almost incomprehensible at times. The world in which Pu-Yi, the Emperor of Ten Thousand Years, who holds the most absolute power of anyone on Earth, is aworld in which he can do nothing, in which he is a prisoner of time and fate and history and tradition. Rituals happens, alarms sound, things are done and we do not know why.
I couldn’t help but contrast The Last Emperor with Curse of the Golden Flower, though beyond featuring a Chinese Empweror the films have little in common. That film too is a mass of incomprehensible cultural moments that as unexplained but which are more of a whole at which we look. The Last Emperor is more strange, more unfathomable to Western minds because it is not steeped in these significances. It’s also a drabber picture, lacking the glint and sparkle and saturated colour of Golden Flower.
It’s also one of the most massive arguments for republicanism that I’ve ever seen. Pu-Yi is Emperor of all and impotent prisoner all at once. He cannot leave. He does not even know he has been deposed, is now only Emperor of the Forbidden City, because he cannot be told anything that would disturb him. He was to marry to become master even there. When he is forced out of China in 1924, he first becomes a decadent playboy, having nothing better to do, and is easy prey for the Japanese, plotting to take control of all Asia. Pu-Yi becomes Emperor of Manchukuo (his native province) despite the warnings that he is only being used, against China, that his desire to be an Emperor again makes him an easy mark. What happens in Manchukuo shows how much he is completely ineffectual.
The film doesn’t make a direct case for republicanism – after all, the Chinese Republic and the Warlord era is every bit as corrupt and rotten as the Empire, and when the film flashes forward to the 1960s in its final phase, we see the revolutionary devotion to Mao Zedong and his teachings and we see it as no different in that respect to the Emperor of Ten Thousand Years – but in portraying Pu-Yi’s life, and that of the people around him. Pu-Yi’s life is destroyed by becoming Emperor, it is twisted and perverted out of all recognition by his position, to the point that any sensitive viewer must ask themselves why these people have to be put through that? Why must our ridiculously naive and simplistic desire for someone to tell us what to do, take responsibility from us, be visited on anyone?
Is it true? That’s what you have to ask yourself about any historical film. What’s been made up, what’s been left out, what’s been distorted for dramatic effect? How far can we believe it? That question’s doubly important because the source material is Pu-Yi’s autobiography, written after ‘re-education’, published in a country not known for allowing ideological nonconformity, especially under Mao. How true is true? Is it what happened, or what Pu-Yi was taught had happened?
I’d like to think it true, not out of any sympathy for Chinese Communism, ut because I’d like the ending to be true, that Pu-Yi’s last years were happy and content. The simplest of things, a gardener, living the most self-effacing of lives. How much further from his childhood could he have travelled? It’s a marvellous irony. Wikipedia doesn’t point up any historical inaccuracies or deviations.
The film ends with a moment of magic uncharacteristic of the film in its whle near 160 minutes length, and a touch of sentimentality. In 1967, Ordinary Citizen Pu-Yi buys a tourist ticket to enter the cold and empty Forbidden City. Sneaking over the ropes that guard the throne he’s challeged by an officious sven year old. Smiling for almost the only occasion in the film, Pu-Yi tells the child that was where he used to sit, that he was Emperor. Chellenged to prove it, he sits on the throne, scrabbles behind it and produces a little case. The child takes it down to the light and opens it. We recall it: it contains the cricket given to Pu-Yi in 1908, when he became Emperor: still alive. In wonder, the boy turns to the man on the throne but he has disappeared. A tourist party being shown the throne room twenty years later, is told that Pu-Yi died in 1967.Not in this film. In this film he moves sideways, out of reality, to become something mystical, something mythical: The Last Emperor, and what they did to him.
John Lone played the adult Pu-Yi demonstrating an extraordinary range. Joan Chen played his wife, Wan-Rong, whose lie becomes an even worse tragedy. Peter O’Toole, tall, austere, undemonstrative, is magnificent as Pu-Yi’s Scottish tutor, Reginald Johnson. Ying Ruocheng plays the unnamed Prison Governor who is responsible for Pu-Yi’s re-education. The rest of the cast are mostly Chinese, with Japanese actors playing their nationality’s roles. All are excellent. The film deals with many incidents at an oblique angle, mirroring Pu-Yi’s lack of knowledge about what is around him, letting the audience build up a bigger tapestry out of their own perceptions.
How I came to forget The Last Emperor, I don’t know. I shalln’t forget it again.