The Last Emperor (1987)
I have only been aware of The Last Emperor (1987) for a few months, even more so with the recent passing of Peter O’Toole which made me want to watch this all the more. From a technical standpoint The Last Emperor is a near perfect film in terms of visual, sound and editing, a soundtrack which sweeps you off to a forgotten time in China’s recent past. It’s hard to ignore the visual splendour of this film that transports you to another world. There are few films where you can say that each frame is a masterpiece, carefully composed before shooting. Everything is carefully considered and it shows on-screen.
Following the rise and fall of the last Emperor of China Pu Yi who became more of a figure-head for a nation who had moved onto become a republic. Trapped inside the forbidden city where we spend a good hour of the film, filming on location, bringing the past very much to life and with great effect. From the naming of the final emperor to his eventual time in prison for crimes against his country. It takes a while to understand the connection between the two threads of the film, one at the beginning of the century and the early 1950’s which sees a man in prison being interrogated by officers who want to get to the bottom of the charges brought against him and his co-conspirators.
It’s the book by Reginald Johnston (O’Toole) which makes the connection clearer in the book (Twilight in the Forbidden City) found by the prison warden, a real insight into finding the truth of what really happened in the Forbidden City. A Scottish teacher who begins to open the eyes of the young emperor who is already questioning his life, unable to leave the walls of the city that. Surrounded by people who both worship him and take advantage of his position. Jonhston and Yi’s relationship is one that sees a real growth and understanding between them both.
However it’s when they are all forced to leave the forbidden city that the life of Pu Yi really begins, leaving to the safety of Japan who allow him to live his own life, a life free from the trappings of being an emperor, a life which he still yearns for, even after his eventually leaves, unable to see the outside world. A world that is not easily accepting of his position in his own country.
Even in the form of a film, entertainment I have learnt of another conflict between Japan and China that grew into part of WWII. We see a man who was once a figure-head, fighting for respect and glory once more, connecting with his people again, when the time comes he must grab the opportunity whatever the cost maybe. We also see how his life affects that of his two wives who each become disillusioned by their lives with him, taking different directions, some more dramatic than others.
Turning to the acting, even O’Toole’s performance really stand out to be recognised, of course they are more than competent at bringing this life to the big screen, and little else. Nothing really blows me away in this biopic. That doesn’t take away from the visual brilliance that is otherwise a great film to watch, even with the sound on mute you would still have an enjoyable film for the eyes which make this a modern classic still to be watched. A powerful tale that sees a leader become nothing more than a figurehead who is abused for his position for others to carry out awful acts.
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