Monday, September 24, 2012

THE LAST EMPEROR (1987)


THE LAST EMPEROR (DIR: BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI) (SCR: BERTOLUCCI & MARK PEPLOE)

In some ways, the selection of THE LAST EMPEROR for best picture seems like a typical choice for the Academy: it's an epic, good looking historical drama that chronicles the enormous changes that occur in a single man's life, pretty standard Oscar fare.  On the other hand, it is unusual in that it deals with historical changes in a non western culture, and it is the first (and so far the only) best picture winner to feature an almost entirely nonwhite cast.  It is also an excellent, intelligent film, with strong performances and a sweeping story that chronicles a part of world history that is rarely acknowledged in Hollywood films.
Its director, Bernardo Bertulucci, first began his directing career in his homeland of Italy in the 1960's.  He became well known in America after directing Marlon Brando to a great, raw performance in 1972's controversial LAST TANGO IN PARIS.  In the 1980's, the Marxist director became interested in Asian culture, and convinced the Chinese government to let him shoot a biographical film about Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last Emperor of China.  It would be the first Western film made in China with the government's cooperation since 1949.   He also gained permission to shoot inside China's fabled "Forbidden City", the first Western feature film to ever do so.  The film's twenty three million dollar budget was raised independently by British producer Jeremy Thomas.   Bertolucci wrote the script with Mark Peploe, and researched Puyi's life, with his younger brother Henry Puyi serving as an advisor.  Hong Kong born John Lone, then known for playing a gangster in Alan Parker's 1985 film YEAR OF THE DRAGON, was hired to play the title role, and famous British actor Peter O'Toole was brought in to play the small role of Puyi's  English tutor. It took six months to shoot the film in China, with the Chinese military helping provide some of the thousands of extras needed for the crowd scenes. It was released in North America by Columbia pictures, and interest in it built slowly, with a big push from the  Oscars (it won nine in all) eventually pushing its box office total to around fifty million dollars in the US.


John Lone and Joan Chen


Beginning in 1950, we see the grown Puyi as a prisoner of war, held by the Red Army of the Soviet Union.  We then flashback to his childhood, when he was raised in the forbidden city after becoming emperor of China at the age of three.  After the Japanese invasion of China, he is allowed to reign over the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, but he is captured by the Red Army after the end of the war.  Eventually, Puyi is released after renouncing his collaboration with the Japanese, and he becomes a simple gardener.

This is a long film, but it rarely drags, really, how could it when its hero has a life that  encompasses both World War II and the rise of Communism?   In the film Puyi goes from spoiled Emperor to exiled playboy enthralled with Western culture, to puppet leader to prisoner, and finally, an anonymous gardener, truly this is a life worthy of an epic film.  And it's also a great looking one; Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro  wisely give each phase of the emperor's life a different look, with his later years appearing gray and  almost colorless, while his time in the forbidden city has colors that are so vivid they practically pop off the screen.  (James Acheson's excellent costumes help a lot too, and both he and Storaro won deserved Oscars for their work).   There are many visually striking moments in the film, like the newly crowned boy emperor emerging from a billowing curtain to discover an adoring crowd, or the seemingly ancient empress dowager (Lisa Lu) lying on her death bed, still adorned in all her finery.

Lisa Lu as the dying dowager


In the title role, John Lone gives a muted but fine performance; he is often quiet and placid, even as huge events occur around him, which is appropriate enough because he had so little control over those huge events; this was a man who was buffeted all his life by forces beyond his control, a fact that Berolucci shows visually at one point by having a wave of Chinese soldiers wash down the steps of the forbidden city and towards the emperor, ready to sweep him into exile.  In many ways, the real heart of the film lies in not the emperor, but in the empress: Joan Chen plays Wan Jung, the young woman who marries the emperor in an arranged marriage, and eventually comes to care for him.  But, when he agrees to become a puppet leader for the Japanese, she rightfully sees it as a betrayal of China, and her bitterness towards this turn of events sends her into a spiral of opium addiction and affairs.  In contrast to Lone's stoicism, Chen is emotional and heartbreaking in her role, and her final scene is powerful indeed.  It is to the film's credit that Peter O'Toole, the only famous actor in the film, is important to the story, but never overshadows the film.  O'Toole seems to be enjoying himself here, showing warmth and humor in the same vein as  the title character from  GOODBYE MR CHIPS, and the rest of the cast is is solid throughout.
If the film has a flaw, it is that I sometimes find it curiously uninvolving.  I think the problem may lie in having a main character who has so little control over his own life, with little initiative or drive to speak of, making Puyi not always the easiest character to warm up to, especially when he quickly agrees to sell out to the Japanese.  Still, this film is an impressive achievement.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Although fine films like Norman Jewison's MOONSTRUCK, James L Brooks's BROADCAST NEWS and Steven Speilberg's EMPIRE OF THE SUN were all released that year, I think Bertolucci's film towers over them all and is a worthy best picture winner.