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The Last Emperor
Remind Me

The Last Emperor

Inspired by the 1964 autobiography of Aisin-Gioro "Henry" Pu Yi (1903-1967), entitled From Emperor to Citizen, The Last Emperor (1987) follows the extraordinary trajectory of the last emperor of the Ching dynasty (1644-1912): his ascension to the throne as a three-year-old boy, his "abdication" in 1911, his installation as a puppet ruler in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, his capture at the end of World War II and subsequent imprisonment and re-education in Communist China, ending with his new life as a worker at the Botanical Gardens in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. The historical events depicted -- often only obliquely -- serve as a framework for the story of Pu Yi's individual struggle: to come to terms with the destiny that is thrust upon him, to accept responsibility for his actions, and to find his true worth as an ordinary human being.

The shooting of The Last Emperor was an epic event in itself. Perhaps the ultimate international coproduction, it was characterized by Variety as "a film about China produced by an Englishman and directed by an Italian in English with many American actors." The $25,000,000 production, by far the most extensive usage of Chinese locations by Western filmmakers up to that time, required 16 weeks of shooting at places such as the Liaodong peninsula, Manchuria, Beijing and, of course, The Forbidden City. Some 19,000 extras (many of them from the Chinese army) and 9,000 costumes were used for the film, figures unthinkable in a Western production with a similar budget. Interiors and the reeducation camp scenes were shot at sound stages at Cinecitta in Italy.

All shooting in China required the prior permission of the state, though the screenplay was ultimately approved without requiring significant changes aside from some factual details. Pu Yi's brother Pu Che, who was in his 80s at the time, served as a consultant to the film as did Li Wenda, a ghostwriter for Pu Yi's autobiography. The production was financed entirely in the West and the crew had to supply its own equipment - including the Steadicam which Bertolucci uses to such great effect in the film. Nonetheless, the production team had to go through the China Film Coproduction Corp. for matters such as currency exchange and import permits. Although Jeremy Thomas has characterized the Chinese government as "very cooperative," in an article written by Tony Rayns for Film Comment Thomas described numerous bureaucratic hurdles that had to be overcome to shoot the film: "Everything had to be brought in, and it's hard to even bring a videotape into China. It was hard to get permission to use non-native Chinese for the main roles, but it was finally accepted because the film had to be in English. The major hurdle was getting permission to use the locations. I was particularly nervous about the Forbidden City; I knew it was the heart of the movie from the production standpoint. We finally cleared it, and we're the first foreigners who have been allowed to shoot there." Rayns adds that Bertolucci's international reputation as a leftist filmmaker helped: "For instance, every time that Bertolucci's name comes up in the coproduction contract for The Last Emperor, it reads: 'Bernardo Bertolucci, member of the Italian Communist Party...." Even the Chinese think it's funny, but it helps to have it there in black and white."

Casting the film presented a formidable logistical challenge to Thomas and Bertolucci, since it required a largely Chinese cast yet the dialogue had to be in English. Most of the major roles are thus filled by Asian actors who worked in the West. The only non-Asian actor in a prominent role is Peter O'Toole who plays Reginal Flemming Johnston, Pu Yi's English tutor. Hong Kong-born John Lone, who plays Pu Yi as an adult, studied acting at Hong Kong and at the Peking Opera before moving to the U.S. His most notable roles before The Last Emperor were in Iceman (1984) - as the title character - and Year of the Dragon (1985). Joan Chen, who was born in Shanghai, previously played in films in Mainland China and the U.S., including Wayne Wang's Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1984); she has also acted in major Hong Kong productions such as Clara Law's Temptation of a Monk (1993) and in David Lynch's cult TV series, Twin Peaks. In 1998 Chen made her directing debut with the acclaimed Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Lisa Lu plays the Empress Dowager. Acting in the U.S. since the 1960s, Lu has appeared in television shows such as Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza and Mission: Impossible. More recently, she played An-Mei in The Joy Luck Club (1993). Fourth generation Chinese-American Victor Wong (1927-2001) was part of the Beat scene, helped found Chicago's Second City comedy troupe and played on television and in local theater companies before moving to feature films such as Wayne Wang's Dim Sum and John Carpenter's cult favorite Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Respected Mainland Chinese actor Ruocheng Ying, who plays the Governor in charge of Pu Yi's reeducation, was serving as Deputy Minister of Culture at the time of production. Kaige Chen, one of China's leading contemporary film directors, known for films such as Yellow Earth (1984), Life on a String (1991) and Farewell My Concubine (1993), plays the Captain of the Imperial Guard at the beginning of the film. Also look for Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto in the role of the sinister Amakasu. Sakamoto recently provided the haunting soundtrack music for Nagisa Oshima's Taboo (1999) as well as past Bertolucci scores like The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Little Buddha (1993).

The real star of the film, however, is arguably Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. The rich subject matter provided Storaro with an ideal opportunity to explore his ideas regarding the psychology of color. In an essay included in the book, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor: Multiple Takes (1998), Storaro explains how his lighting scheme for the film arose when he first read Pu Yi's autobiography: "It was possible, I thought, to register in images the road backward in time, that psychoanalytic road through the various colors of different wavelengths that make up the entire chromatic spectrum of visible energy. Just as white light could represent the end of his life journey, so Pu Yi's various ages could be represented by the various 'ages of the colors.'" Thus the episodes from his childhood are dominated by warm colors such as red, orange and yellow, the section set in Manchuria makes frequent use of indigo, the scenes of his imprisonment and re-education are almost devoid of color, while the scenes of Pu Yi in his old age have a more balanced color spectrum. Clearly the crowning achievement of Storaro's career and one of the great uses of color in film to date, The Last Emperor earned him a much-deserved Academy Award for cinematography.

Bertolucci's film swept the 1987 Academy Awards, taking home statuettes for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Sound. The version broadcast on TCM is an extended cut designed for television, featuring over 50 minutes of footage not seen in the 166-minute theatrical release version.

Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay: Mark Peploe, Bernardo Bertolucci and Enzu Ungari, based on the book From Emperor to Citizen
Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro
Editor: Gabriella Cristiani
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su
Production Design: Ferdinando Scarfiotti (Art Direction) and Bruno Cesari (Set Decoration)
Costume Design: James Acheson
Sound: Bill Rowe and Ivan Sharrock
Principal Cast: John Lone (Pu Yi as an adult), Richard Vuu (Pu Yi, age 3), Tsou Tijger (Pu Yi, age 8), Tao Wu (Pu Yi, age 15), Joan Chen (Wan Jung, "Elizabeth"), Peter O'Toole (Reginal Johnson), Ruocheng Ying (the Governor), Guang Fan (Pu Chieh as an adult), Victor Wong (Chen Pao Shen), Dennis Dun (Big Li), Ryuichi Sakamoto (Masahiko Amakasu), Maggie Han (Eastern Jewel), Ric Young (Interrogator), Lisa Lu (Tzu Hsui, The Empress Dowager).
C-163m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.

by James Steffen