Monday, 2 June 2008

Review: The Last Emperor

I've been reading a lot about China's history, so I felt like I needed some visual stimulus as well. I'm glad I did!

The Last Emperor was fantastic, luxuriously directed, with a compelling main character and supporting characters.

It's the story of Pu Yi, China's last emperor (well, the last ruler with the name emperor - Mao held much the same exalted position). He was crowned at the age of 3 as the Qing dynasty was slowly falling apart, and this film charts his life through being a Western-style playboy, a puppet emperor for the Japanese, an imprisoned war criminal, and eventually a simple gardener.

It's a big job to make such an unusual character accessible. Who can relate to someone who had absolute power at age 3? Yet he didn't really have power, as this film ultimately shows. And that's the part that really hurts. Two powerful scenes drive this home, where this strong-headed young man comes up against the limits of his absolute power. I won't give them away, you'll have to see it.

Through some skilled storytelling and acting, Pu Yi is incredibly easy to relate to as he moves through his uniquely confusing world.

It's not a film for the faint hearted. In a story full of people, there are only two who show Pu Yi genuine concern for his welfare: his Scottish tutor (played melifluously by Peter O'Toole) and, unexpectedly, the prison governor.

There's a story behind the story, as well. This film was made in 1987, with help from the Chinese government, who didn't interfere with the script at all. It was a time when East and West were growing inceasingly closer under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.

In some ways, the prison governor - portrayed by Ruocheng Ying, then vice minister of culture - reflects a story of modern China's growing up. While a prison guard yells at Pu Yi, Ruocheng's character takes a calm, avuncular approach. Later he is shown being marched along in a dunce cap, shamed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. It's interesting that the government of 1987 allowed this portrayal - and perhaps admission of a mistake - of their actions just twenty years earlier.

Sadly, that openness was set back by the Tiananmen Square massacre two years later. Perhaps that openness is back, as we see in the amazing response to the recent earthquake.

Geopolitical musings aside, The Last Emperor is good. Go see it.

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