Friday, February 11, 2011

1987: The Last Emperor

Pu Yi is crowned Emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three.  He spends his sheltered childhood locked in the Forbidden City while his country changes drastically.  As a young adult, he is kicked out of the Forbidden City and eventually becomes a puppet emperor for the Japanese in Manchukuo.  After World War II, he is imprisoned for helping the Japanese.  The film alternates between scenes of him in prison and flashbacks of his earlier life.

While this film is in some ways a fairly typical Best Picture Winner - that is, it's ridiculously long and incredibly depressing - it also stands out from the rest.  The story itself is interesting, but the way it is told makes it positively mesmerizing.  The contrast between the colorful Forbidden City and the drab prison beautifully illustrates the fall of the emperor, but it also has a touch of irony because even in the Forbidden City he is a prisoner.  Poor Pu Yi is never free; he is always either told what to do, or is manipulated into thinking he wants to do what is really benefiting others.  Like I said, it's a sad story, but it's put together remarkably well.  The cinematography and story combined are more than enough to make this film worth watching.

The little kid who plays the three-year-old emperor is adorable, and John Lone gives a magnificently understated performance as the adult Pu Yi.  Joan Chen, who plays his wife, is both gorgeous and a really good actress.  I thought it was interesting that the British tutor was played by Peter O'Toole; it's as if the filmmakers thought they needed at least one big-name Hollywood star to get people to see the movie.  No offense to Peter O'Toole, but I'm pretty sure the film would have done just fine without him.  I also think it's kind of weird that an Italian directed a movie about Chinese history, but somehow it works.  And I'm pretty sure all the Asian characters were played by Asian actors, which is great compared to Best Picture Winners of previous decades (Around the World in 80 Days, anyone?).  So while The Last Emperor is long and depressing, it's definitely worth watching, especially for people who know at least a little bit about China in the first half of the 20th century, or who want to get to know more about it.

Next up: Rain Man

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