By Marc S. Sanders
Finally, I invested myself in watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar winning Best Picture The Last Emperor. Honestly, as breathtaking as the undertaking to make this sweeping epic is, it was the first and likely last time I will ever watch the film.
This three hour plus biographical picture focuses on a young child named Puyi, plucked from nowhere to become the next Emperor of China. He is destined to reside in Peking, The Forbidden City amid rich tapestries and deep Chinese culture at the start of the twentieth century. Oddly enough, the would be Emperor is a prisoner of his own surroundings for nearly his entire life. He is forbidden to go beyond the walls of Peking. Later in his adult life, he is a political prisoner and war criminal in the now regarded People’s Republic of China. Puyi was never granted an opportunity to think for himself or act upon his devices. He is forced to become an adaptable symbol to ongoing representations of the country that harbors him.
I watched this film with my wife. The next day we discussed it with my colleague Miguel who regards the picture as one of the best films he’s ever seen. I can not dismiss his viewpoint, but personally the depth of Betolucci’s efforts for maximum authenticity pushed my interest away from the film.
I embrace character arcs in films. It’s what keeps each passing moment of a movie refreshingly interesting. I do not deny the change in the Emperor’s story arc. Puyi changes as his country changes on both a political or militaristic platform. Yet, the film has vague segues in its changes as well.
Characters appear and disappear. Moments in history occur with no build up or explanation. It was challenging to follow who is who, and what has just happened.
Early on, we see how Puyi as a child interacts with his younger brother, Pujie. Much later in the film, Pujie reappears when they are adults. I am not going to pretend I’m a sophisticated enough moviegoer to realize this is the brother we saw as child over an hour earlier in the film. It took some time to realize who this guy was.
I’m also not going to pretend I know enough about Chinese history and culture to comprehend the traditional customs and ceremonies that occur, or China’s relationship that developed with Japan, or China’s significance during World War II.
That’s my problem with the film. Was I supposed to take a college course on Chinese history before watching The Last Emperor? The film is expository for sure, but it presumes the viewer will recollect at what point in history this moment or that moment occurs.
The film flashes forward and back to when Puyi was a prisoner of war in 1952. In prison, he eventually becomes reformed, but it became frustratingly complicated to understand exactly why he was even sentenced.
Following the film, I referenced Wikipedia to grasp the sequence of events. The historical change of this one man certainly merits a film to be made, much like Malcolm X or Born On The Fourth Of July. However, those films had a more comprehensive narration for me and the ongoing changes that the central figures experience are more well defined as the years pass and the people around them change.
The Last Emperor felt unclear to me in its storytelling while still immersing me in a land I’d imagine is unfamiliar to most viewers. For centuries “The Forbidden City” was not open for a public to encounter. If that’s the case, I believe Bertolucci needed to define what he captured much more clearly. Who’s to know what we are looking at, or what significance this setting has if most of the world population has yet to see what is here?
The Last Emperor requires a high threshold of patience and focus to grasp what it presents. It should be seen for the locales that are filmed, which were completely unseen by me personally. You’ll also get some tidbits of Chinese history, for sure.
All I can recommend is not to be so hard on yourself, when you find yourself lost at times in the film.