The Last Emperor

  • Directors: Bernardo Bertolucci
  • Producers: Jeremy Thomas
  • Writers: Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci
  • Genres: Biography, Drama, History
  • Actors: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O Toole, Ruocheng Ying, Victor Wong

The film opens in 1950 with PÇ”yí’s re-entry into the just-proclaimed People’s Republic of China as a prisoner and war criminal, having been captured by the Red Army when the Soviet Union entered the Pacific War in 1945 (see Soviet invasion of Manchuria) and put under Soviet custody for five years. Puyi attempts suicide which only renders him unconscious, and in a flashback, apparently triggered as a dream, Puyi relives his first entry, with his nurse, into the Forbidden City.

The next section of the film is a series of chronological flashbacks showing PÇ”yí’s early life: from his royal upbringing, to the tumultuous period of the early Chinese Republic, to his subsequent exile, his Japanese supported puppet reign of Manchukuo, and then his capture by the Russian army – all of which are intermixed with flash-forwards portraying his prison life. There, Puyi is shown newsreels of Japanese war crimes in Manchuria and the defeat of Japan, and he realizes his need to assume responsibility for his complicity in Japanese atrocities.

The concluding section of the film ends with a flash-forward to the mid-1960s during the Mao cult and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Released from prison as a “reformed citizen”, PÇ”yí has become a gardener who lives a proletarian existence. On his way home from work, he happens upon a Mao parade, complete with children playing pentatonic music on accordions en masse and dancers who dance the rejection of landlordism by the masses, aroused by rectified Mao thought. His prison camp commander is one of the “dunces” punished as insufficiently revolutionary in the parade. In a deliberately ironic scene, the last Emperor makes imperial remonstrance to the Red Guard students.

With just a small shift of the camera we are brought to a more modern day, after China had opened to the West, where a tour guide’s klaxon (ironically emitting the tune of “Yankee Doodle”) calls American tourists together in front of the throne. The guide encapsulates PÇ”yí’s life in a few sentences and informs us of his date of death.

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