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Basil Pao’s Stunning Photos Show Life on Set of “The Last Emperor”

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A stunning exhibition of behind-the-scenes photographs on the set of Bernardo Bertolucci’s iconic 1987 film The Last Emperor are on show at Beijing art institution M WOODS‘ Longfusi site.

Hong Kong photographer Basil Pao, who was also a still photographer for years on Monty Python star Michael Palin’s travel series, is the man behind the camera, snapping candid photographs of actors and crew of the movie.

The film was the first international feature to be filmed inside the Forbidden City and went on to win a number of Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and others.

Basil Pao Radii China

Persistent rain delayed the filming of the ‘Imperial
Wedding’ scene.

Basil Pao Umbrella Radii China

Outside the Meridian Gate, the Italian wardrobe assistant did a
final walk through to inspect the hundreds of costumes before
the cameras rolled for the ‘Expulsion of the Eunuchs.’

Pao also acted in the movie, starring as Prince Chun, the father of the title character of the film, Puyi, the Last Emperor himself. Pao met Bertolucci in Hong Kong in 1985 and the pair hit it off and the former flew into Beijing 1986 to star in the film. He got caught up in activities on set beyond his acting duties, like finding horses for the film’s Imperial Guards and helping to manage the 19,000 extras that appeared in the movie, providing him with plenty of opportunities to capture the photos that we see in this showing.

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While photos show the film’s stars, like Joan Chen and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, many also show extras lounging in their downtime between shooting, while we also see crew interacting with the awe-inspiring and enormous set-pieces that had been made for the film.

Basil Pao The Last Emperor Radii China

John Lone as adult Puyi. The young Emperor had just cut off
his cue in a previous scene, and was about to expel the
eunuchs from the Forbidden City.

Basil Pao Lounging Radii China

Ladies-in-Waiting by a small lake in the Summer Palace.

Basil Pao Bench Radii China

Ladies-in-Waiting watching the arrival of Kuomintang soldiers
from the sidelines of the Tennis Court set.

Basil Pao Dog Radii China

Fashion models playing female divinities in the Palace of
Tranquil Rest set were tasked with looking after Peony – the
Dowager’s Pekingese that was featured in close-ups on her
deathbed.

Basil Pao Headphones Radii China

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Chief Eunuch Chang

All images ©Basil Pao 1986 • All rights reserved. All images courtesy of M WOODS.

RADII Staff
RADII (rā'dē-ī') is an independent platform of artists, writers and creators dedicated to sharing vibrant stories from the rarely explored sides of new China.