81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Last Emperor, The

October 18th, 2009 · No Comments · 1987, Adaptation, Bernardo Bertolucci, Biopic, Color, Communists, Criterion Collection, Dalai Lama, Drama, Drug Use, Hemdale Film, Last Emperor, Puyi, Tibet

The Last Emperor This is an incredibly sad movie. Not sad in the sense of Out of Africa or Terms of Endearment. Rather, sad in a passing-of-an-era sense.

From its entry on Wikipedia: The Last Emperor is a biopic about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China…Puyi’s life is depicted from his ascension to the throne as a small boy to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Chinese Communist authorities.

I’m not going to mince words: I hate Communism. Chinese Communists have destroyed many of the world’s greatest treasures. And cultures. Tibet comes to mind. And Buddhist temples, artworks and artifacts. And let’s not forget the Dalai Lama, whose own story is similar to that of Puyi. The only difference is that the Dalai Lama fled Tibet when the Communists stormed Potala Palace in Lhasa. He hasn’t returned to China since. People around the world – in organizations such as International Campaign for Tibet – work to restore Tibet’s independent status as a nation, and the Dalai Lama as its rightful leader.

In The Last Emperor, Communists forced Puyi out of the Forbidden City. But Puyi, with the help of the Japanese, went back and tried to become emperor again. But the Japanese used Puyi to try to overthrow China. When governments changed hands again, Puyi was captured by the Communists, jailed, and forced to confess his “crimes” against China.

The movie is brilliantly realized. I was drawn in from the opening scene – that of a man in a group of “war criminals” who tries to hide from Chinese soldiers in the bathroom of a train station in Manchuria, 1950. The man (whom we later discover was the emperor) rushes to the bathroom and slashes his wrists. But the Chinese soldiers discover him before he dies and he is taken into custody.

The next scene is a flashback to Peking, 1908. A toddler is made emperor of the Forbidden City. Yet, even though he is the supreme ruler, he is, essentially, imprisoned in the palace for his entire childhood and well into his early adult years. Within the walls, he leads the life of the royalty. Outside the walls, China changes rapidly.

The Last Emperor is a remarkable movie that spans generations and follows the life of one man and the profound, sweeping changes that befall his country when a Communist regime takes over. (I wonder if the Communist dictator promised “hope and change” when he took over?) The movie was filmed on location, in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Forbidden City is an astounding piece of architecture. According to its entry on Wikipedia: “Built from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms and covers 720,000 square metres (7,800,000 square feet).”

I had to laugh when I read this: “In recent years, the presence of commercial enterprises in the Forbidden City has become controversial. A Starbucks store that opened in 2000 sparked objections and eventually closed on July 13, 2007.”

I can’t believe a Starbucks opened shop in the Forbidden City! I’m a die-hard capitalist. But even I can see the foolishness in that. It’s like putting a Starbucks on Mackinac Island, a place that was once as free from chain stores and neon as I’m sure the Forbidden City was. But, sure enough, there the Starbucks sat, right on main street. Ugh.

This is a movie that I’ll watch again. And again. It is a fascinating glimpse of a culture that once was and is no more. But more than that, this is a movie about a man without an identity, who is constantly imprisoned, and told what he can and cannot do. I felt sorry for Puyi. Talk about a guy who got ripped off by life. Puyi went from emperor to prisoner to commoner.

The Cast
John Lone (1952- )……………………….Pu Yi – Adult
Joan Chen (1961- )………………………Wan Jung
Peter O’Toole (1932- )…………………..Reginald ‘R. J.’ Johnston
Ruocheng Ying (1929-2003)………….The Governor
Victor Wong (1927-2001)……………..Chen Pao Shen
Dennis Dun (1952- )…………………….Big Li
Ryuichi Sakamoto (1952- )…………….Amakasu
Maggie Han (1959- )…………………….Eastern Jewel

Directed By
Bernardo Bertolucci (1940- )

Writing Credits
Enzo Ungari, 1948-1985 (initial screenplay collaboration)
Mark Peploe, 1943- (screenplay)
Bernardo Bertolucci, 1940-
Henry Pu-yi, 1906-1967 (autobiography “From Emperor to Citizen, The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi”) (uncredited)

The Last Emperor holds the distinction of being the only movie to this point that won every category for which it was nominated. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and it won all nine: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director (Bernardo Bertolucci), Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Score, Best Picture, Best Sound, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Mark Peploe, Bernardo Bertolucci).

If you have three hours to spare, I strongly encourage you to watch The Last Emperor. This is film making at its finest.

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