Jan 10, 2019 in Film Review

The Story of the Last Emperor of China

The Last Emperor is the Oscar winning picture of 1987 directed by Bernardo Bertolucci that features the story of the last emperor of China starting from his ascent to throne at a very young age and ending with his death. Life of Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor and later the Kangde Emperor, was marked by turbulent times in the Chinese history, which could not, but shaped the emperor’s life and destiny. Moreover, this is the first picture that the Chinese authorities allowed to film in the Forbidden City where virtually the entire first half of the film takes place. The picture aims at depicting the complicated destiny of the last reigning and then abdicated representative of the imperial dynasty in the context of cultural and social revolution, as well as military unrest, which occurred in China in the 20th century.

Puyi has been and remains a symbolic representation of several concepts that were essential at those times. Initially, he was a child-emperor, a last one in the royal dynasty, who though ascended to the throne at a tender age of two years and ten months, remained a symbol of feudalism and posh imperialistic order. Afterwards, he became a sort of an emperor in exile, though he remained within the borders of China. He was forced to leave the Forbidden City and had to find a way to live not in the manner he was used to, which was an enormously difficult task if to take into account circumstances of his upbringing and maturing within the strict confines of the closed royal court. Thus, it seems of no surprise that the emperor attempted to bring his power back even through collaboration with Japan that simply fooled him and turned him into a puppet with royal blood who could assist in implementing greedy plans of the Japanese emperor. Then, Puyi served as a sample of a reformed citizen, a true Communist comrade for the authorities of the Chinese People’s Republic after his imprisonment and political re-education. However, the issue relating to who Puyi was still remains as different sources give their own idea of the events, twisting the history to their own needs. The film may be not the most truthful account of historic events, yet it is a marvelous historic drama that manages to impress viewers with the personal drama of the last emperor who seems to be a lost child in the turbulent world of the 20th century that tries to find its place in life, fails, and then adapts to the altered reality in the best possible way even if it means becoming a politically rehabilitated citizen in the communist country and changing royal duties for a job of a gardener.

 

The film starts with depicting the year 1950 when Puyi together with his several close allies arrives at a prison for military prisoners and war criminals. He is shown as an exhausted and devastated man who attempts to commit suicide either out of desperation and misery or out of fear what may await him in the future. In fact, the film is built as a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, which allows comparing the present Puyi in the communist era and his past as a child, teenager, and then the emperor of Manchukuo. Being a little child, Puyi is ordered to leave his family and his home and come to the Forbidden City to be named a new emperor by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who dies right after announcing her will. Little Puyi is terrified of the surroundings, he wants to go home, he even orders as the emperor to be allowed to go home, yet his wish is never granted. From this point, one starts suspecting that Puyi was the emperor only in a name and that the honorary title could give him no freedom of choice and movement. Moreover, his only friend at first is his wet nurse whom he sees as a beautiful butterfly, but she is sent away by the concubines and consorts of the late emperor who are still treated as empresses. The court seems to conduct a lavish lifestyle, hundreds of eunuchs serve the emperor, and he is as spoilt as a worshipped child could possibly be. Yet, he is obviously unhappy to live in the Forbidden City closed to the rest of the world. Once, he is visited by his mother and young brother who stay with him and become the closest thing to a friend the emperor could have. Puyi’s relationships with mother may have influenced his attitude to women in general, which later detrimentally impacts his family life. The only true friend of a young emperor was his tutor Reginald Johnston who does his best to make the emperor a little bit happier, but still always tells him the truth. He is the one who makes Puyi see that eunuchs and ministers are robbing him and that he has to take his fate into his own hands. Besides, the tutor may be blamed for Puyi’s love for all Western things. The Chinese authorities make him leave the Forbidden City with all his court, and he then moves to Tianjin where he meets the Japanese and decides to trust them. The Japanese see him as an opportunity to legally seize power in China and create the kingdom of Manchukuo reigned by the puppet emperor Puyi. At the same time, his personal life becomes a disaster with his second wife demanding a divorce and his empress becoming an opium-addict when Puyi blames her for ruin of their imperialistic marriage. Once the empress gets pregnant supposedly from a driver, Puyi has no other choice and, in fact, no will and desire to resist the Japanese generals. Later, he becomes a truly obedient emperor despite occasional bursts of struggle and signs everything they give him. After the capitulation of the Japanese emperor and invasion of the Russian forces, he is captured and moved to a prison. His life in prison is far from the one he has been used to as he has to learn to take care of himself on his own without servants and he has to confess to his crimes. Though being resistant at first, he then breaks and confesses to everything the Japanese were guilty of in the war. The prison warden attempts to make him see the truth that he cannot be responsible for all the crimes, yet Puyi remains defiant and simply wants to be left alone. After ten years in prison, he is pardoned and freed from the prison to become a gardener in Beijing. Prior to his death in 1967, Puyi manages to visit the Forbidden City once more and to prove to a young pioneer that he has truly been the last emperor. The film ends with tourists coming to the palace in the Forbidden City and the guide summarizing Puyi’s life in a few brief sentences.

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The film depicts the personal tragedy of a man who is deprived of the family and freedom at an early age by being put into a golden cage. Moreover, Puyi grows up among worshipping servants without proper guidance and tutorship and is then deprived of everything he knows to be thrown away into the cruel reality that wants nothing to do with the emperor as a symbol of feudal system. This man tries to rebuild his kingdom by trusting the Japanese emperor, yet he is lied to and fooled, and has to bear further captivity in another golden cage. Puyi’s life seems to be as a series of closed doors that he cannot open and leave, which symbolizes his inability to implement his dreams instead being forced to adapt to the harsh reality. The communists attempt to reform the emperor as if they succeed in reeducating such enormous evil as a remnant of feudalism that collaborated with the villainous Japanese, it will mean that anyone can become a decent comrade-like citizen. Personally, I doubt that they succeed in reforming Puyi in the way they have aspired to, for the reason that, at least in the film, Puyi in the prison and after his release is not a reformed man with truly communistic worldview, but rather a broken and devastated man who can no longer bear to prove to everyone that he is the emperor and that he rules his life. He seems to be a person who wants to be left in peace and to look after his plants as they will never abandon or betray him. Furthermore, Puyi looks truly happy only when he returns to the Forbidden City and finds his old pet cricket, which one of soldiers gave him on his coronation day. He proves to a young pioneer that he is the true emperor and vanishes. Despite his inability to leave the palace as a child and his lack of freedom in many respects, it was the happiest time of his life when he was sheltered from the bitter reality of warring China.

The film manages to depict the early reign of Puyi authentically, yet it somehow omits to include it in the broader context of the country undergoing a social and Cultural Revolution. Despite the scene of Mao-dedicated procession, viewers do not get a sense what life in then-China truly was. Puyi has always been the emperor and even his life in prison is depicted rather mildly. The reality was much worse and harsher than the picture depicts. Imprisonment in political prisons could not have been reduced to conversations aimed at producing confessions and labor intermingled with sports and meditation. At those times, ordinary Chinese people were starving and dying all over the country as the government introduced and propagated new ideology. The abandoned Forbidden City may be considered as a symbol of the Chinese glory at first, which then turns into a distant memory remembered by tourists and historians. In fact, the prison warden, a true and devout communist, is depicted in the end of the film as a member of the procession that parades disgraced and dishonorable citizens. Puyi does not get a clear answer about the man’s crimes and is shoved out of the way as something inessential and trifle. However, directors of the film do not show viewers the difficulties and atrocities ordinary Chinese endured in other parts of the country, though they do offer outright propaganda of the regime as well.

The Last Emperor focuses on the life of one person who is tightly interconnected with the life of the entire country, yet not so much as to dwell upon lives of the common people. Thus, the major topic of the picture is the rise and fall of one man who tries to overcome life hardships in uneasy conditions of the social unrest and civil revolution. Lastly, the personal drama of the last emperor, who partially remains a child-like figure in some respects throughout his entire life, is played on the background of historical drama. The consequence of those historic events was extinction of the glorious and opulent Chinese empire and emergence of the somewhat grey and communist People’s Republic of China.

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