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The Last Emperor Movie Review

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1987 – Bernardo Bertolucci –

Bernardo Bertolucci's generally acclaimed biography of Pu Yi, who went from being an Emperor to an ordinary citizen of China, boasts some spectacular cinematography, costume design, and location filming inside the Forbidden City. Throughout the story, from the moment the boy Pu Yi (John Lone) assumes the throne, to his imprisonment and re-education by the Communist government, momentous and revolutionary events take place, but Pu Yi plays no active role in any of it.

As Emperor and as a man, Pu Yi seems to have no effect on anyone or anything around him. He does not make things happen—things happen to him. As a youth he is spoiled and treated with the reverence of a god, at least inside the Forbidden City, but at the same time he has no real power and is prevented from learning anything really useful. He is a puppet for other people, and even when he attempts to regain some of the Emperor's power and spearhead some type of reform, he finds that he is still a pawn, and his hopes are largely ignored. Ultimately, his life becomes useful as an ordinary citizen in the Communist republic, learning to be a simple gardener.

Unfortunately, although The Last Emperor is a visually impressive film, this record of Pu Yi's life at times seems to lack dramatic depth. This may be due in part to the passive nature of his character, but it is difficult to see into the man and understand his needs and motivations, an obscurity of character that also tends to make the major themes of the story murky.

Occasionally, some of the acting is stilted, particularly in scenes portraying the emperor's early life. Narration is awkwardly inserted quite some time after the story begins—in one way an understandable attempt to explain events but perhaps also a signal of the difficulty the filmmakers had in streamlining the span of years the film covers into a coherent pattern. Essentially, The Last Emperor offers wonderful visual compositions but lacks the coherence and dramatic involvement that would have made it both a great film and a great story. Thousands of extras are used in the grandest manner, giving the film a lyrical strength that often transcends its faults.

Cast: John Lone (Pu Yi), Joan Chen (Wan Jung), Peter O'Toole (Reginald Johnston), Ruocheng Ying (The Governor), Victor Wong (Chen Pao Shen), Dennis Dun (Big Li), Ryuichi Sakamoto (Amakasu), Maggie Han (Eastern Jewel), Ric Young (Interrogator), Vivian Wu (Wen Hsiu), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Chang), Jade Go (Ar Mo), Fumihiko Ikeda (Yoshioka), Richard Vuu (Pu Yi–3 years), Tao Wu (Pu Yi–15 years) Screenwriter: Bernardo Bertolucci, Mark Peploe, Enzo Ungari Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro Composer: David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cong Su Producer: Jeremy Thomas for Yanko Films, Tao Films, Recorded Picture Company, Screenframe, AAA Soprofilm; released by Columbia Pictures MPAA Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 160 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1987: Art Direction/Set Decoration, Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro), Costume Design, Director (Bernardo Bertolucci), Film Editing, Original Score (David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cong Su), Picture, Sound, Adapted Screenplay (Bernardo Bertolucci, Mark Peploe, Enzo Ungari); Directors Guild of America, 1988: Outstanding Directorial Achievement (Bernardo Bertolucci); Golden Globes, 1988: Director (Bernardo Bertolucci), Score (David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cong Su), Screenplay (Bernardo Bertolucci, Mark Peploe, Enzo Ungari); Nominations: Actor (John Lone); Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, 1987: Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro), Music (David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cong Su) Box Office: $43.98M (domestic gross).

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