Friday, December 19, 2014

The Last Emperor (Best Picture 1987)

I saw this film for the first time when I was in Japan. It was a big deal at the time, not only because of the story of Japan's neighbor, but also because Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto played the evil Japanese agent Amakasu and helped write the original music (with Cong Su and David Byrne of the Talking Heads). When they won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, Sakamoto was catapulted into the realm of superstar in Japan.
The other thing I remember about The Last Emperor and Japan is that there is a scene when the Emperor, after he has lost everything and is in a Communist Chinese reformatory prison, watches documentary footage of the Japanese attacks in China. Specifically, there are scenes of The Rape of Nanjing, the incident where the Japanese Imperial Army murdered millions of Chinese civilians. These scenes were edited out by the Japanese distributor on its first showing in Japan, citing that the footage was too graphic for Japanese audiences. It was eventually re-instated, I believe. China and the film's director both registered angry complaints.
The Last Emperor is a three hour extravaganza by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, best known to me at the time as the director of the soft-porn film Last Tango In Paris (with Marlon Brando). He was the first Western film maker to get permission to film in The Forbidden City in Beijing, so he took full advantage of the freedom he was given. Honestly, for the first 90 minutes the real star of the film is the architecture of that national treasure! When the action finally leaves Beijing and moves to Tientsin and Manchuria, it's not just because of the locale change that the action lags, but it does have something to do with it.
The real problem with this sweeping film is that the protagonist is not engaging. The film starts slowly, at the Russo-Chinese border of Manchuria in 1950. Here we encounter Pu Yi, the former Emperor of China and Manchuria, as portrayed by John Lone. He is a broken man who attempts to commit suicide in the train station restroom. It is a dark, dreary scene; in fact, the blood oozing out of his veins is the first color we get in the film. The red segues into "the past," where a 3 year-old Pu Yi is taken from his mother and brought to the palace in The Forbidden City to be made Emperor. The colors and pageantry of his childhood life are in *very* stark contrast to where he ended up.
From there we bounce back between the child as he ages and the elderly, imprisoned Pu Yi as he goes through "rehabilitation" in prison. It becomes clear that Pu Yi was pampered and spoiled as a child, so he grew up with a certain delusion of grandeur. He doesn't know how to make things happen, so consistently is used by others. The worst example, of course, is his being made the head of the puppet state in Manchuria, actually run by the Japanese Imperial Army. Sakamoto as the Japanese agent is pure slime and Evil. When he finds out that Pu Yi's opium-addict wife is pregnant, but not with Pu Yi's child, he blackmails poor Pu Yi in a scene that is actually painful to watch. Later in the prison we learn that Pu Yi has signed off on all accusations that were put before him, even those he could not possibly have been responsible for. When confronted by the prison governor, he breaks down and cries, "Everything was my fault!" We finally understand the weight on his shoulders and the glaze behind his eyes.
As the adult Pu Yi, John Lone is in the majority of the later scenes and holds his own against a stellar supporting cast. Unfortunately, as mentioned already he is the lead but not the protagonist. He plays against his cast, but does not really play *with* them, if that makes sense. Still, it is a shame that he was not even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, as he does a great job literally holding the film together. Among the rest of the cast, Peter O'Toole as his English tutor is especially memorable, and not just because he's Peter O'Toole. As Reginald Johnston he brings a "foreign" presence to the proceedings, helping to "free" Pu Yi's thinking, gently guiding it from the walls of the Forbidden City to the whole world. Joan Chen is brought in as his wife in an arranged marriage, and is fantastic in all of her scenes. Vivian Wu as the Imperial Consort Wen Hsiu also lights up every scene she is in, especially her last as she demands a divorce. And in the dark and dreary "present," the prison governor (Ying RuoCheng) is Pu Yi's only ally, gently teaching him how to be a better man.
The only drawback I noticed in the film itself is the lack of a clear chronology. Why did Pu Yi get named Emperor when his mother and father seemed to still be alive? When and why did he stop being the Emperor? Why didn't his family live with him in the palace? Why was he finally kicked out of the Forbidden City? Specific background facts would have made it easier for me to understand what was actually happening, but I guess this is a minor quibble.
The Last Emperor was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning all of them. Certainly the direction, screenplay, and music are all memorable, but truly the art direction and costuming are fantastic. There were no actors nominated, unless you count the Forbidden City (which won). If you are interested in China or Chinese history, or watching a man wrestle with the issue of his own self-worth, you will enjoy this film.

The Last Emperor
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1987*
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Directed  by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci

As you watch this notice the spectacle:
the costumes, the locations, the extras, the music...
it's all so amazing!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Broadcast News
Fatal Attraction
Hope And Glory
Compared to The Last Emperor, none of these are Best Pictures. Broadcast News is a great drama about television news and the direction it was heading in. Any fan of current so-called "news" should watch this for a history lesson. Fatal Attraction is the story of Michael Douglas sleeping with Glenn Close; why it made this list is beyond me. Hope And Glory is the autobiographical film by director John Boorman about growing up in WWII London. And Moonstruck is the romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicholas Cage. Cher won Best Actress for her role, and Olympia Dukakis won Best Supporting Actress. It's a cute, charming little film. Also this year, Sean Connery won Best Supporting Actor for his unforgettable role in The Untouchables, and Michael Douglas won Best Actor for his role in Wall Street. Greed is good?

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