The Last Emperor (1987) (PG-13)

The Academy Award for Best Picture has gone to some movies that no ones knows about or rarely mentions. "The Life of Emile Zola" is a prime example or "The Great Ziegfeld", even "Mrs. Minniver"...I mean, in modern day cinema, who watches these movies and who talks about them? Only a few films have escaped from pre-1960s Best Picture history with a reputation to uphold them like "The Lost Weekend" or "All About Eve".
Still, I think the most innocuous of all of the Academy's movies is also one of its biggest winners: "The Last Emperor". The reason that it is so odd fitting in with the rest of the film is because it is surrounded by movies that have lasted. In the 80s, we got "Chariots of Fire", "Amadeus", and "Out of Africa", not to mention "Gandhi". So why does "The Last Emperor" get forgotten? It's because it doesn't belong. Not that it didn't deserve to win the Oscar, but this is a film that is such an oddity within the rest of the canon, that it cannot be compared to any other work. This is partly due to director Bernardo Bertolucci's touch.
The film is true to itself, teeming with an almost untouched culture by American audiences, and filled with vibrant colors. It's a character study about history because it never lets us know about the man under the microscope. It's anticlimactic and anti-emotional, filled with intrigue and ambiance; and yet at the very end of it all, it's a very exhausting work.
Beginning in early 1900, the movie chronicles the life of the last emperor of the Forgotten City in China. Ascending to the throne at age 3 and abdicating it at age 7, the boy ruled only the select city, never allowed to exit until finally war broke out and he was forced from his house by the point of a gun.
The movie begins in the middle of the twentieth century, after the second World War has ended. Pu Yi (John Lone) the once emperor is now a prisoner of China, which accuses him of being a traitor to his country.
Shot in two different time periods, "The Last Emperor" never once lets the emotion drain from one before going to the other and the reason for this is because the movie doesn't have much emotion to it anyways. It's a very methodical piece, a very un-sentimental piece, one that is very hard to engage with. While spectacular in its own ways, the film does not manage to convey any sense of urgency or hostility that could have been present in most situations that we see.
As a child Pu Yi grows accustomed to a certain amount of treatment. When his younger brother meets him at age ten, the boy claims that Pu Yi has no power. This much is true outside of the Forbidden City but not inside and Pu Yi tries to make his younger brother see his power by making one of his eunuchs drink ink.
The recklessness and complete uncaring do not reflect that Pu Yi is a bad man, simply that he was brought up in the oddest of circumstances and that his views differ from everyone else's. At one point, once in prison, the overseer makes that statement that everyone is born with good in their hearts. Is this true? "The Last Emperor" both the work and the man seem to ask if that is indeed a fact.
But beneath all its posturing and all its curious sexuality, "The Last Emperor" is a movie that is mostly about history, a history that is rarely portrayed on a Western projector.
This is why the film has disappeared. It's virtually unapproachable and distant, even cold to an extent, and it's a lengthy film on top of that, and it doesn't fit into our Hollywood standards for great movies.
I've always had an issue with Bertolucci, mostly I don't get what all the fuss is about. With "The Last Emperor", the director brings us a great work, one that is intellectually fascinating and visually stunning; but by the end of it all, you begin to feel a bit cheated...and that's unfortunate, but somehow unavoidable.

Score: ★★★

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