During an elaborate coronation ritual, early on in The Last Emperor, the titular infant Emperor Puyi grows restless. To the chagrin of his minders, he escapes to the courtyard where countless members of the Qing court have gathered to pay him homage. The boy emperor darts between them, stopping before a retainer who hands him a cylindrical box – a box containing a captive cricket. “Look, he is kowtowing to your majesty”, he is told.
There are many words to describe Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Majestic. Breath-taking. Sumptuous. Epic. And they would all be true. But despite the size of the film: its grand locations, its breadth of the subject matter, its colossal 163 minute run-time and its sweeping vistas; it is the human story lying at its heart that makes it one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time.
At first glance, the film’s protagonist would seem distant from us 21st century laymen. Crowned emperor three times, he ruled as the final emperor of the Qing dynasty from age three until seven. Aisin Gioro Puyi lived a pampered life in Beijing’s Forbidden City – the imperial palace complex of 9,999 rooms – surrounded by eunuchs and servants who catered to his every need.
One of the central themes of the film is captivity. In one surreal scene the young emperor, who believes he can do as he pleases, is blocked by a literal wall from entering a part of the palace – a part where Yuan Shikai, the President of the newly founded Republic, was visiting. The extent of his powerlessness is revealed when, riding around ecstatically on his new bicycle, the emperor is prevented by his own guards from leaving the palace. “He’s the only person in China who may not walk out of his own front door” says his tutor, Reginald Johnston.
It is through the Scotsman Johnston that Puyi becomes infatuated with the West. He styles himself Henry Puyi and dreams of escaping to Oxford – Johnston’s alma mater. Later, in a bewildering scene in Tianjin, an international hub in the North of China, Puyi is dressed in a dapper tuxedo, with slicked back hair, leaning on a piano and crooning “Am I Blue?” to the delight of his international audience.
The Last Emperor does not balk at displaying the less pleasant sides of Puyi’s story. He becomes obsessed with regaining his throne at all costs, even collaborating with the Empire of Japan in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria – of which he would become the nominal emperor. In actual fact, he would be more prisoner than ruler.
Puyi is a tragic figure. Although as a child, he was pampered and catered for, in his autobiography he would later recount “although I had many mothers, I never knew any motherly love.” From his life of captivity he becomes a figure of impotence. Puyi is manipulated and acted on by external forces throughout his life, but is more human because of it.
Throughout the film, he is shown as a shapeshifter, a man trying to find himself, from a traditionalist emperor destined to rule, to an anglophile playboy dreaming of living in San Francisco. In that sense, his life reflects China’s complex and contradictory trajectory at the same time – the shift from empire to People’s Republic marked by shifting ideologies and changing forms of government.
Bertolucci intercuts Puyi’s life story with scenes from his re-education by the Communists. In 1949, when Mao Zedong seized power, rather than execute him, Mao decided to make him an example for all of China. In the final scene, Puyi, working as a gardener in Beijing, returns to the Forbidden City, now open for tourists. In a poetic moment in the room where as a three-year old he had been crowned, he climbs onto the imperial throne and retrieves a cylindrical box from beneath its plush cushion. He hands it to a young member of the Red Guards, who opens it, freeing the cricket that had been trapped all its life.
Image: Fred Hsu via Wikimedia Commons