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Why You Should Rewatch “The Last Emperor” Two Decades Later

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My Own Private Cinema is a monthly RADII column that focuses on impactful films from China’s cinema history.

After rewatching The Last Emperor earlier this summer, it occurred to us that there was no better time to reexamine the powerful and enduring legacy of this 1987 Oscar-winning film. In fact, we found that the evocative East-West joint production has become more relevant than ever in 2021.

The Last Emperor tells the epic story of Pu Yi, who is, as the movie’s name suggests, the last Chinese emperor. We follow Pu Yi, who had an extraordinarily tumultuous life as China underwent tremendous societal transformations in the early and mid 20th century. 

Under the lens of the controversial — yet legendary — Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, the life of the last monarch amid the decadence before the fall of the Qing Dynasty is a reflection of inexorable and radical social changes in China at the time. The film is also a riveting and thought-provoking account of Pu Yi’s journey of self-discovery, as well as his search for identity, redemption, and ultimate freedom.

Pu Yi lived through the end of China’s 2000 years of imperial history as the glory of the Qing dynasty vanished, and China launched on a new revolutionary path. He eventually became an ordinary citizen of the People’s Republic of China after serving 10 years in prison as a war criminal for his role as the puppet ruler of Manchukuo under Imperial Japan.

With the help of Chinese authorities, The Last Emperor was the first feature film to be shot in Beijing’s Palace Museum, one of the best-preserved national cultural heritage sites in China. It leveraged the incredible architectural complex to execute some of the best shots in cinematic history.

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Richard Vuu as young Pu Yi in The Last Emperor

The strong use of colors in the film, in particular, shows the effectiveness of the advanced cinematography techniques employed by the director. Going together with the ups and downs of the plot, the subtle changes in the background color palette help set the tone as the significant events in Pu Yi’s life unfold. These color alterations allow viewers to interpret and follow the storyline harmoniously and unobtrusively, providing new dimensions that enable us to deconstruct the film.

The symbolism of these colors begins with reds and oranges as Pu Yi is crowned emperor at the age of 2 and grows up in the stunning Forbidden City. The young boy is full of hopes and excitement for the future, indicating energy, passion, and warmth. As crucial moments of the political turmoil unfold, such as when Japanese invaders are introduced, the color pattern gradually becomes darker, with yellows, greens, dark blues, indigos, and purples.

On the one hand, the film uses colors to deepen the narrative and carry emotion as it changes throughout the movie. On the other, The Last Emperor manipulates the audience’s feelings, adding a sense of livelihood to the plot, alongside another ambient feature, the film’s fantastic soundtrack. 

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Joan Chen and John Lone in The Last Emperor

Each of the 15 original songs was composed by either legendary Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, or Chinese composer Cong Su. Each is crucially important in helping to define the main character throughout, while establishing a fitting richness to the overarching plots.

A prime example is the touching, heart-breaking song “Where is Armo?. As Pu Yi’s wet nurse since he was born, Armo is perhaps the only person Pu Yi has had a tight connection with since he was little. Hearing Armo’s departure from the Palace, the young Pu Yi runs to the gate looking for her, while “Where is Armo?” plays, pushing the scene to an emotional climax.

One of the most significant aspects of the film, which continues to strike a chord with modern-day audiences, however, lies in how the movie navigates the painful yet profound part of our collective history. It weaves individual lives and profound societal changes into narratives that offer critical perspectives on our present day.

In tracking his fall from a prestigious king to a regular citizen, Pu Yi’s life can be summarized in three words: isolation, identity, and self-discovery. 

No matter whether he is isolated in the Forbidden City, which he was never allowed to leave, the Japanese concession in Tianjin where he temporarily seeks refuge, or at the royal residence of Japanese-controlled Manchuria, Pu Yi is never truly able to live a connected life or to see the outside world in a meaningful capacity. 

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Richard Vuu as Pu Yi in The Last Emperor

He is confused, desperate, and depressed, and is once moved by these emotions to launch a failed reform inside the Palace. At the same time, he does not have the guts to make concessions to a noble life, which he believes he is entitled to. 

The pivotal transition in the movie occurs when Pu Yi becomes a prisoner at the War Criminals’ Control House of Fushun, where he starts writing an autobiography and finally gets the chance to reflect on the struggles, lies, love, crimes, and details of his tragic life.

During the last few minutes of the film, Pu Yi, who has become an ordinary gardener in new China, buys a ticket to the palace where he grew up. There, he releases a grasshopper from the confinement of a little box — a metaphor, it seems, for his realization of happiness and freedom, which, it turns out, he has been longing for his entire life.

Taking the lessons of this movie in a modern context, it has been more than a year and a half since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fresh outbreaks are happening around the world and in China, haunting and terrifying people. The world is at a historic turning point where people are experiencing dramatic social changes in all aspects of life, which have inevitably prompted some folks to think about larger-than-life questions while reconstructing their personal narratives.

While the pandemic continues, the frustrations of loneliness and isolation are still troubling in many ways. But, when we take a step back and think, there’s a unique lesson for us — take the time to discover yourself and seek meaningful connections in an authentic way. You will never know if there is a light at the tunnel’s end, but you will at least find more peace in an increasingly wild world.

All images via IMDb

Siyuan Meng
Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. She likes going outdoors.