Title: The Last Emperor
Release Date: 22 October, 1987
Oscar Ceremony: 11 April, 1988
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole
Nominees: Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Hope and Glory, Moonstruck
“The Emperor has been a prisoner in his own palace since the day that he was crowned, and has remained a prisoner since he abdicated. But now he’s growing up, he may wonder why he’s the only person in China who may not walk out of his own front door. I think the Emperor is the loneliest boy on Earth.” – Reginald Fleming ‘R.J.’ Johnston
I have a complicated past with this film. When I was very young, I vividly remember my mom watching it. Within the first few minutes, the adult ex-emperor Puyi is captured as a political prisoner and attempts to commit suicide by slitting his wrists in a locked bathroom. Needless to say, that was enough to traumatize a child of my age and I never stayed to watch the rest. Still, you know how children are: they have to know EVERYTHING. I would see the DVD (or was it VHS?) cover and ask my mom “but what’s it about?” “How can that little boy be an emperor?” My mom proceeded to explain that the previous emperor had died and 3-year-old Puyi was next in line. The idea of ruling over an entire country as a kid and leaving my parents made me so sad that I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly bear to watch this movie.
Fast forward about 15 years and adult Ilinca is finally ready to revisit this harrowing experience. All those feelings from my childhood initially came running back to me, but it didn’t take long for me to start feeling more complex emotions and to understand the situation with a new level of maturity. The Last Emperor is a film that has the power of luring you into the complicated life of a man whose existence you barely even gave much thought to in the past.
It’s funny because nothing really happens in this movie and that’s usually something I critique when it comes to 3-hour epics, but for some reason I was completely fine with it this time. The first hour or so did such an effective job at making us curious about Puyi’s universe inside the Forbidden City that I never felt the need for the plot to go anywhere. I was too busy admiring all the intricacies of the production design and reflecting upon the moral implications of being an emperor at such a young age.
The emperor is a fascinating character. However, unlike most epic heroes (Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia, Mahatma Gandhi of Gandhi, Judah Ben-Hur of Ben-Hur, or General George S. Patton of Patton, to name a few) Puyi has zero agency. He is a completely passive character who rarely has the power of taking matters into his own hands. Ironically, the one thing he claims to want is the one thing he cannot have: freedom. At the age of 3 his life was already decided for him and even after his abdication there was still not much he could do about it. He is a complete victim of circumstance, but the thing is every time we start feeling sorry for him, he manages to remind us that he’s pretty much just an entitled brat. It’s a bit difficult to feel sorry for an entitled brat, even if it’s not fully his fault.
Puyi consistently wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be free, but he is unable to accept the consequences that come with his independence. As someone who grew up in a completely sheltered environment where he couldn’t even play tag with his brother without having hundreds of eunuchs chasing after them for safety, Puyi is unable to understand what “freedom” even means. Wherever he goes and whatever he does in his later life, he expects his entourage to do everything for him. I hate to tell you this buddy, but common folks don’t live like that. We actually have to squeeze toothpaste on our toothbrushes with our own two hands. It’s a sad life, but hey, at least we’re free to leave the Forbidden City, right?
I didn’t fully understand all the politics in this movie, but I blame my lame high school education for that. Had we spent less time discussing how the French-Quebecers are superior to all the English-speaking people on the planet and spent a bit more time learning about what actually happened in the world throughout history, perhaps I’d have a better grasp on things. Still, what fascinated me the most is how this one man in China had one of the most complex lives I’ve ever head of and yet somehow we don’t ever talk about it.
At the end of the movie, a tour guide speaks to a group of tourists at the Forbidden City and mentions the emperor. She says:
This is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperors were crowned. The last emperor to be crowned here was Aisin-Gioro Puyi. He was three years old. He died in 1963.
That’s it. After everything we’ve seen and everything that has happened to Puyi, his whole life comes down to this one line of dialogue in a tour guide’s speech. This begs the question: How many great people out there have had their lives reduced to nothing but dates of birth and death? What does it really take to leave a legacy in the world? In the end, it looks like it doesn’t matter if you’re a peasant or an emperor; life goes on with or without you.