Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole, Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vivian Wu (Wu Jun Mei)
Written by: Bernardo Bertolucci, Mark Peploe, based on the autobiography by Henry Pu-yi
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: -99
Date: 10/04/1987

The Last Emperor (1987)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Riches to Rags

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I saw The Last Emperor the week it opened in 1987, and haven't seen it since. Now, 11 years later, the movie is being re-released, in a "director's cut," supervised by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, with almost an hour of footage restored. The 11 years in-between viewings of The Last Emperor has dulled my memory, and I wasn't able, for the most part, to distinguish which scenes were new.

I think the reason for this is that The Last Emperor is such a passive movie. Most of the scenes that were there before don't work to "drive" the movie forward. The new scenes are there more as dressing -- to give you more a of an idea of character of Pu Yi, and just how empty his life was.

The Last Emperor was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, from a screenplay by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe, and it shows a strange dulling of Bertolucci. He was once dark and intense, with Before the Revolution (1964), The Spider's Stratagem (1970), The Conformist (1970), and Last Tango in Paris (1972). He also made another international epic before The Last Emperor, 1900 (1975), which was a mad, enthusiastic monster of a movie. I wonder if that experience left him gutted and drained. We now know that his work since The Last Emperor has shown no signs of returning to past glory; The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1994), and Stealing Beauty (1996).

The Last Emperor may be the last strains of the artist in Bertolucci. The new cut runs about 3 hours and 40 minutes, and yet it's never boring. It never falls into cliché, or panders, or dumbs itself down. It seems fresh after 11 years. (The same could not be said for The Big Chill also being re-released after 15 years.) I think it speaks highly of the movie that the new footage is seamless and doesn't distract from what I remember from the original, shorter, cut. Bertolucci was the first Westerner allowed to film in the Forbidden City, and he took marvelous advantage of it. He fills each frame with a full representation of what the space is like. We are never confused as to where we are. The colors are brilliantly used, too. Greys are used for the present day, as Pu Yi is telling his story in prison, to Golds for the glorious past, when Pu Yi actually ruled as a child.

Still and all, for all this remarkable beauty, Bertolucci doesn't quite get to the poetry of the situation. We're fascinated, using our brains, but there's nothing here to touch the heart. It's an ironic story. I think director Martin Scorsese cut closer to the truth with Kundun (1997), which was a similar story in many ways (about the Dhali Lama and his escape to India after the Red Chinese invaded Tibet).

The Last Emperor set a record at the Academy Awards, winning every category it was nominated for; a total of 9 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I wouldn't take any of these away. I think the movie is perhaps the last of the great old-time Hollywood epics, in a class with Intolerance (1916), The Godfather Trilogy (1972-90), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Right Stuff (1983), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984); and much better than Gone With the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), The Sound of Music (1965), Gandhi (1982), The English Patient (1996), or Titanic (1997). I think this form needs to be celebrated sometimes. Although, just because a picture is big, doesn't mean it's the best. I think I respect The Last Emperor because it doesn't overwhelm you the way Gone With the Wind and Titanic do, pounding deliriously on you, begging you to love them. The Last Emperor is quiet and respectful of the audience. It allows us to join it.

One Oscar that got away is for John Lone as Best Actor (the winner was... Michael Douglas in Wall Street?!?). John Lone is a very good Pu Yi, even though the passivity of his character prevents him from giving a blow-out performance. He has a striking face, and he ages from 18 to 62 during the course of the movie. (The age make-up does not draw attention to itself like in many other movie epics.) Pu Yi, as everyone must know by now, ascended the throne at the age of 3, and abdicated at the age of 7. He was given a tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole), and was married to the new empress (the wonderful Joan Chen) at 15. He remained in the Forbidden City of China until he was 19, a token symbol of the former China, now under rule by the Republic. He then was seduced by the Japanese to become ruler of Japan-occupied Manchuria, again to be nothing more than a puppet emperor. As that position crumbled, he was imprisoned for 10 years, and "reeducated" to become a Chinese Communist. He lived out his last years as a gardener.

For a nearly 4 hour movie, The Last Emperor seems complex, but is really very simple. The best I can say for it is that it is a smart epic, and I think it will age very well. It would have succeeded more if it had found a way to worm itself into our hearts. As of now, I suspect that the film community looks upon the movie with a kind of awe and respect, rather than a real adoration. I think sometimes -- when you've got a story as fascinating as this one -- there's a place for that, and I think people should go see The Last Emperor.

DVD Details: For some reason, this longer cut never received a proper U.S. DVD release, and then both versions fell out of print. In 2008, the Criterion Collection released a jaw-dropping four-disc set including both cuts, plus two discs worth of extras: video postcards shot in China by Bertolucci, several making-of documentaries, some shot on-set, some from the 1980s and some brand new, plus interviews and other stuff. Finally, we get a deluxe booklet with essays, journals and other ruminations. I'm all for including multiple cuts of a film in a DVD release, but in this case, if you're going to watch, I'd stick to the longer cut.

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