This month for my blind spot pick I decided to take a look at a film that took home 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Director: 1987’s The Last Emperor. I didn’t know much about it going into the film except that it was a long and sumptuously mounted production. After viewing it, I agree it is long and sumptuously mounted but aside from those qualities, I wasn’t very impressed by it.
The Last Emperor was helmed by Italian director Bernardo Berlotucci and it feels European in its grand scope and leisurely pacing. It was the first Western film authorized by the PROC to be filmed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, so naturally all of the sets and locations are authentic and grand. It is completely understandable why it won Oscars for art direction, cinematography and especially costume design. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is also very strong.
However, in many ways it felt like a foreigner telling a Chinese story. The Last Emperor is about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Evidently they based the screenplay off of Puyi’s autobiography, which is odd because so much of it rang flat and false.
To begin with, having all the characters speak English feels like an almost mocking choice. It takes you out of the scenes because this is supposed to be a serious movie and they are so obviously not speaking the right language. It’s one thing for an Indiana Jones movie to have accents but an epic masterpiece like The Last Emperor? Not so much. I guess you could make the argument it is in the traditions of old school epics like The Ten Commandments but those movies had stronger narratives to make up for the cultural awkwardness.
Speaking of story, it boggles my mind that The Last Emperor won Best Adapted Screenplay because the narrative is very weak. We see many events happen to Puyi but I never felt sorry for him or invested in his character. For most of the movie he came across as a spoiled brat without much nuance or introspection. Towards the end he grows as a person as he is incarcerated by the communists, but I still felt distant and like I never truly understood him. We are told Puyi is the “loneliest boy on earth” but he just felt like the blandest.
Some of the side characters are more interesting like his main wife Wanrong. She kind of has a lesbian relationship yet does seem to love Puyi and want him to succeed, which could have been interesting but it isn’t really explored in a satisfactory way. She’s a lonely character and I wish we got to know her better and have more time with her. Peter O’Toole is good as Puyi’s British tutor Reginald Johnston. He both kowtows and challenges the Chinese royal establishment, but even he could have been used more effectively and challenged more as a character.
The frustrating thing is I can tell Puyi’s story is fascinating having gone from opulence to a puppet emperor to a prisoner and a common man all in one life. But the screenplay in The Last Emperor delivers that compelling story without any tension or emotional heft. It all landed like a thud and was really quite boring. I didn’t care about his character and the interesting parts were more like reading a textbook than watching a compelling narrative. It needed a Steven Spielberg type voice to come in with sweeping moments of drama and tension to sell the soapy dialogue and characters. That might have worked better.
I kind of wish they would remake The Last Emperor. I don’t think many are too attached to this version and there is a good story in there to tell. A modern filmmaker could have all the good qualities of this film but make it in Mandarin with a better, more compelling script and it could be an amazing film.
I can see why other people like The Last Emperor, and I do commend it for its production design, costumes, cinematography and music but it didn’t work for me as a movie. It was bland, culturally awkward and plodding. I’m glad I checked it off my blind spot list but it is definitely one I will never watch again.